The Unexpected, Predictable End of the War in Afghanistan
Sometimes winning looks and feels like losing. This summer’s bloody, tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan was a predictable disaster. It was also an incredible, surprising anti-war victory.
My own thoroughly jaded worldview dictated that after two decades and $2 trillion, the only two realistic options were to stay in Afghanistan forever or depart in a blaze of chaos. As it happened, we got the latter. But I would have bet a great deal on the former.
The strategic and logistical failures of the botched withdrawal perfectly echoed the strategic and logistical failures of the occupation, and were made inevitable by those failures spanning four administrations.
Experts have made the case that there were several junctures where pulling out would have been less painful and less costly than it turned out to be in 2021: as early as November 2001, when an exhausted and discombobulated Taliban offered a deal to incoming Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for example, or after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.
But just as there was always going to be a last man to die for a mistake, there was always going to be a last helicopter out. There were always going to be broken promises and people left behind. And the backers of this forever war were always going to wield those failures in defense of continued engagement.
My darkly pessimistic assessment about the likelihood of a smooth, orderly departure from the region was echoed by none other than President Joe Biden in his August 31 remarks marking the formal end of the war: “Now some say we should have started a massive evacuation sooner, and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner? I respectfully disagree.”
The Biden administration had been planning the withdrawal for months. Technically it has been in the works for even longer, as President Donald Trump promised a drawdown well before he left office. But it’s understandable if the military brass was treating the whole matter as a fire drill right up until go-time. After all, they’d been down the road to withdrawal a few times before, and on each occasion the generals and their allies pressured the commander in chief to turn back at the last minute. Understandable, but nonetheless unforgivable.
It is likewise understandable that U.S. armed forces thought the Afghan military—which it had spent nearly 20
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