Well, it’s over. Joe Biden announced the end of the Afghanistan adventure yesterday. It will quickly start fading from Americans’ memories. As one person said on Twitter, Americans barely paid attention when we were there. They will certainly not pay attention when we are gone.
The media and the right’s ghashing of teeth will continue for a few more weeks. We will hear over and over how Biden botched the withdrawal. One conservative friend tweeted, “Joe Biden didn’t end the war…he lost it.” That’s an absurd sentiment and will be lost in history. Twenty years from now, nobody is going to look back on a twenty year engagement and say, “Joe Biden lost Afghanistan just eight months into his presidency.”
Besides, we didn’t lose Afghanistan. We never had it to begin with. In the early days of the war, we toppled the Taliban and we chased Al Qaeda out of the country, but we never established anything remotely like a functional national government. We created a few city-states that could exist only as long the U.S. military could prop them up.
Too often, our partners were corrupt and we clearly never really understood the country. The Taliban didn’t rise to suddenly take the country. They were clearly already working with local political and military leaders long before the Americans ever left. The Afghan army supposedly had 300,000 soldiers to the Taliban’s 75,000. They had an air force that the Taliban lacked. Yet the country fell in literally days. We just did not understand what was happening, or, if we did, we should have been gone long ago.
We never seem to learn the lesson of these engagements. Our ability to build democracy or even a stable society depends on the willingness of the people who live there. We lost Vietnam because we built alliances with a series of corrupt leaders that never had broad support. We toppled a stable, if brutal, regime in Iraq that served to keep Iran in check. Our invasion there led to massive bloodshed, cost thousands of American lives, and gave birth to ISIS and other terrorist groups. We didn’t win there, either. If anybody won, it was Iran. We strengthened their position in the region, a far greater loss strategically than the Taliban taking over Afghanistan.
We’ll suffer through the next fifty years hearing conservatives bemoan that we could have won Afghanistan if not for the politicians, the same pitiful song we’ve heard about Vietnam. In reality, the lesson we should learn is that engagements in other countries should be narrow and limited. Overthrowing governments is the easy part and certainly not victory. Governing foreign lands is the hard part. We should have gone after Al Qaeda and then gotten out. Instead, we spent 20 years trying to build a nation in our image, an impossible dream that still animates much of the media and the foreign policy establishment.
Could the withdrawal been done better? Maybe, but I’m skeptical. Getting out of an engagement like Afghanistan was going to messy one way or the other. What will be remembered twenty years from now is that Joe Biden got us out. He did what other presidents wouldn’t and he’s taken the heat and the blame. That’s what leaders do. The rest is just second guessing.