By Balthazar Sheehan
As the last American military planes were leaving Afghanistan, hundreds of Afghan civilians lined the runway, seeking to flee the chaos arising from the widespread desertion of Afghan forces, the flight of President Ashraf Ghani to Tajikistan, and the arrival of the Taliban into Kabul, the nation's capital. The visual of civilians clinging to the aircraft was compared by American media to the iconic images of the last helicopter leaving Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Of striking similarity were images of American embassy officials forcibly preventing Vietnamese staff from boarding, leaving them behind in the mess that the U.S. had created. There are certainly similarities between the two conflicts: both times U.S. forces, despite superior training and resources, were outmatched by guerilla opposition. Still, there is something undoubtedly unique about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though it was definitely a failure that laid bare the grim culmination of 20 years of error, miscalculation, and political posturing, the exit was an ultimately necessary step in moving away from 21st century American imperialism and its "forever wars".
President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw troops was partially set in motion by the actions of the prior administration. Since 2006, there has been an effective military stalemate between the American-led coalition and Taliban forces due to the coalition’s monopoly on air-power in the region, allowing American troops to wage war via bombings and drone strikes. While this often resulted in the bombings of innocent civilians instead of intended Taliban targets, this strategy minimized the casualty rate for American forces such that indefinite occupation did not cause a fervent U.S. domestic backlash as seen in the protest against the Vietnam War. However, this dynamic was upset by the Trump Administration's negotiations with the Taliban in 2020, which yielded an American promise to leave Afghanistan by May of 2021, so long as the Taliban no longer targeted U.S. troops and bases. While the Taliban agreed to this condition, it engaged in a campaign of assassinations and persecution of the Afghan government and others at the heart of Afghan democracy, including professors, journalists, and activists, paving the way for a smooth takeover once the U.S. departed. This largely unconditional promise of U.S. removal was emblematic of the ‘America First’ policies of the Trump era, ignoring the Afghan government’s concerns over its ability to maintain order.
Establishing a timeline for U.S. withdrawal meant that, should the promise of departure be broken by a new administration, the Taliban would likely ramp up their attacks on U.S. forces. The desire to avoid combat escalation and protect troops stationed in Afghanistan forced
President Biden to pursue withdrawal according to the Trump administration's deadline. Despite the fact that Biden was pushed into this decision by a previous administration, many of the missteps of his approach to U.S. withdrawal are firmly his own. Though he extended the deadline for removal past the May 2021 promise of the Trump administration, one of the most destructive actions of the Biden administration was to seek to attach some trite symbolism to the withdrawal process by scheduling it to be finalized exactly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks. This date was chosen not because it reflected an accurate appraisal of the time needed to manage the complex logistics of troop removal but because it allowed the Biden administration to try and manufacture a silver lining around one of the most prolonged and consequential foreign policy blunders of U.S. history. That this war, initiated for political reasons and consistently utilized over the last two decades to pad approval ratings, was wrung out even in its last moments for just a drop of political capital is abhorrent.
That this war, initiated for political reasons and consistently utilized over the last two decades to pad approval ratings, was wrung out even in its last moments for just a drop of political capital is abhorrent.
Unfortunately, the realities of war seldom intersect with a politician's desire for symbolic or poetic resolution. It wasn't the case when President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier with a banner boasting of a "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq in 2003, and it certainly wasn't the case in Afghanistan. Biden's announcement in April that troops would leave Afghanistan in five months set off a wave of confusion and fear, and he did little to quell the growing desperation of the Afghan people. The mass evacuation of military personnel from Bagram Air Base, the largest American military compound in the country, occurred overnight and without warning in early July, raising legitimate fears of "stealth evacuations" of American personnel far before the deadline. Meanwhile, the evacuation of Afghan interpreters was postponed until the final weeks, ostensibly to signal faith in the capability of the Afghan government to hold back the Taliban. Instead, it caused the last-minute rush of over twenty thousand Afghan interpreters to seek Special Immigrant Visa status, flooding a system typically processing only a few thousand per year. By the time the last U.S. forces left, two hundred thousand Afghans seeking to leave the country remained, including many former interpreters whose cases were deprioritized in the final days to accommodate the two hundred U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan at the time.
The U.S. concocted a situation where its presence was simultaneously anathema to eradicating the Taliban, yet integral in preventing their hegemony.
The condensing of the removal time frame was not purely due to political maneuvering but also due to U.S. miscalculations regarding the strength of the Ghani government. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, in a post-mortem of the evacuation process, stated, "the fact that the Afghan Army that we and our partners trained simply melted away—in many cases without firing a shot—took us all by surprise." Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added, "we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks." The inability of the Afghan government and its military to secure the state should have come as no revelation. The corrupt government had metastasized into a full-on kleptocracy years ago, consistently enabled by the U.S. The U.S. military’s observations severely overestimated the capability of the Afghan forces, and the resulting abandonment of the Afghan soldiers only increased the pressure exerted by the swiftly advancing Taliban.
In the end, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was a necessary undertaking that would inevitably be extremely painful and chaotic. The U.S. should have never been in Afghanistan, and that original sin would cloud any decision regarding their exit. The U.S. concocted a situation where its presence was simultaneously anathema to eradicating the Taliban, yet integral in preventing their hegemony. The indiscriminate violence of U.S. bombings drove many Afghans into enemy ranks, but the Afghan government and its military were wholly incapable of securing the country independently. The departure from Afghanistan was always going to be a defeat, but it was worsened by the additional missteps of Biden as he went about the withdrawal.
Biden’s withdrawal fits the trend of U.S. leadership drastically miscalculating the Afghan political and military landscape, and prioritizing domestic political reception over the needs of Afghans, many of whom directly aided the U.S. in its fight against the Taliban. The U.S. government was depressingly true to form as it pulled out of Afghanistan, prioritizing its political well-being at the expense of the inhabitants of the country it had long ravaged.