Too many journalists and commentators have reported the end of the US military presence in Afghanistan through a filter of a prejudged partisan conclusion that the “way it was ended” has been “catastrophic,” “botched,” “embarrassing” and “incompetent.”

Five C-17 transport planes left the airport just before midnight in Kabul on August 30 carrying the last remaining military personnel as well as civilian evacuees. In a month, about 122,300 people were flown out of Afghanistan, including 5,500 US citizens. Other nations participated in the evacuation. Reuters reported, for example, that Britain evacuated 15,000 and Germany more than 5,000. In what fantasyland could this coordinated multinational airlift be considered an “epic failure,” as Liz Cheney called it or an “unmitigated disaster” according to Mitch McConnell?

Although several hundred US civilians were still in Afghanistan when the last plane left, as well as perhaps thousands of Afghans who could be considered at risk for Taliban retribution, efforts by the US State Department and others to secure their safe passage from Afghanistan are continuing.  

Most of the Afghans who worked with the Americans likely lack any kind of paperwork and their fate at the hands of the Taliban may be grim. Their fate would have been equally grim had the US failed to keep its word and had instead maintained a military presence beyond the August 31 deadline until some uncertain date in the future when the last Afghan at risk could be evacuated. The International Rescue Committee estimates that some 263,000 Afghan civilians aided the 20-year US mission.

Those quick to assess “the way it was ended” as a failure want a scapegoat for what was not achieved in Afghanistan. But the failure was not in the way it ended. The failure was the lack of a consistent and achievable military mission for the 20-year US war.

At first, the mission was clear: retaliation for the September 11, 2001, attacks directed by Osama bin Laden, carried out by al-Qaeda and supported by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US helped the Afghan Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban from power. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers fled to the Tora Bora mountains, but an assault on their stronghold failed. Osama fled to Pakistan.

In January 2002, President Bush declared war “on terror” and identified North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” The military objective in Afghanistan became unclear as the focus shifted to Iraq and the perceived threat that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). Although no substantial evidence of WMD could be found—no “smoking gun”—Bush National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice famously warned: “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

The US invaded Iraq in March 2003, starting with a “shock and awe” bombardment of Bagdad. In May, under a “Mission Accomplished” banner, Bush declared: “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, “we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization.” Eighteen years later, there are still 2,500 US troops in Iraq.

Afghanistan became a sideshow. The military mission became “reconstruction” of Afghanistan, which actually meant “construction” of a central government in Kabul, but despite our efforts to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, the Taliban resurged.

A “strategic partnership” to train and equip the Afghan National Army was announced in 2005. Four years later, President Obama said the mission was to defeat al-Qaeda, and he sent an additional 47,000 US troops into Afghanistan (there were already 36,000 US troops and 32,000 NATO troops there).

In May 2011, a CIA-led operation tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, but the war dragged on into 2014, when Obama announced the withdrawal of US troops to about 10,000 by the end of 2016.

In 2017, President Trump approved dropping the “mother of all bombs” on a suspected Islamic State enclave in eastern Nangarhar Province. It was “shock and awe” on the cheap with about the same outcome.

After sending several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan, Trump began negotiations with the Taliban in 2019. The erstwhile “reconstructed” Afghan government was left out of these discussions. In early 2020, the US signed an agreement with the Taliban under which US forces would be withdrawn by May 1, 2021, and the Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would not be used as a safe haven for terrorist activities.

The Taliban continued to carry out attacks on Afghan security forces. In response, the US bombed Taliban positions in Helmand Province. The Afghan government released 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a condition for peace talks with the Taliban.

By mid-January 2021 when President Biden took office the US troop level in Afghanistan had been reduced to 2,500. Biden announced in April that the May 1 deadline would be extended and that all remaining US and NATO military forces would be withdrawn before September 11 (later revised to August 31).

Facing no resistance (President Ghani fled the country and the Afghan National Army surrendered), the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15. Biden re-deployed about 6,000 troops to secure the airport and complete the evacuation. On August 26, a suicide attack by ISIS killed 13 US service personnel and at least 60 Afghans at a checkpoint outside the airport.

The exit from Afghanistan was not pretty but it was no less remarkable, no less right. Those who claim that a more “competent” end to the 20-year war could have been achieved by maintaining a residual US force of 2,500 are delusional. Nation-building was never an achievable military mission. It took the meltdown of the Afghan government and the evaporation of the Afghan National Army to prove that mission could not be accomplished.

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