The U.S. reckons with defeat in Afghanistan

The U.S. reckons with defeat in Afghanistan

In a couple of days, the Biden administration intends to wrap up its withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Not only will most U.S. military personnel be pulled out of the country by Aug. 31, but so will the entirety of the American diplomatic presence, including the U.S. ambassador. According to U.S. officials, there’s no clear time frame for a return.

Instead, there’s a world of violence and chaos. On Sunday, President Biden went to an Air Force base in Delaware to participate in the transfer of the remains of 13 U.S. troops killed by Islamic State suicide bombings and offer condolences to their families. The attack on Thursday outside Kabul airport also killed at least 170 Afghans, piling on further woe as countless people still seek to flee a country in the grips of Taliban militants. In keeping with its checkered legacy in Afghanistan, the United States launched a retaliatory drone strike that, according to CNN, led to the deaths of nine Afghan civilians, including children.

Biden presides over an ignominious departure. Two decades ago, the United States invaded Afghanistan and, with local allies, toppled the Taliban government in Kabul, which had given sanctuary to terrorist group al-Qaeda. Twenty years later, the Taliban is once more in power, boosted by billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment left behind for an Afghan military that collapsed before the militants’ advance. As U.S. officials evacuated the embassy in Kabul, an internal memo directed them to burn sensitive items, including American flags, lest they fall into Taliban hands.

That least bleak act underscores an overarching reality in Afghanistan: The United States failed to defeat the Taliban, failed to establish a functioning democracy in a country into which it sank vast amounts of blood and treasure, failed to thwart (and arguably helped stoke) the spread of Islamist extremist outfits, and failed even to leave on its own terms.

In Washington, Biden’s opponents are using the occasion to score partisan points. “We’re looking at the exit, and over the next two days, our heroic military is doing the best they can with a horrible policy decision,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “This is one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history, much worse than Saigon.”

Former president Donald Trump also engaged in hyperbole. He cast the American retreat as “the greatest foreign policy humiliation” in U.S. history, no matter that Biden was following through on an exit agreement Trump brokered with the Taliban and dealing with an Afghan government that had been repeatedly sidelined and undermined by the Trump administration.

The original architects and cheerleaders of the West’s “war on terror” issued their own laments. Former British prime minister Tony Blair penned a lengthy essay decrying the “imbecilic” thinking behind the U.S. withdrawal, which he argued was “driven not by grand strategy but by politics” and widespread American fatigue and indifference toward the war effort. Prominent Republicans, including former Trump national security adviser John Bolton and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), condemned both Trump and Biden for their decision-making around Afghanistan. Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who had a role in launching both invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, told Politico that “it will be impossible for President Biden to wash this stain away.”

Kori Schake, a former official in the George W. Bush administration now at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to America’s supposed damaged credibility. “After the U.S. surrender to the Taliban, it will be hard for anyone to take seriously the Biden administration’s posturing about promoting human rights and defending democracy — which are supposedly central features of Biden’s foreign policy,” she wrote.

Biden’s defenders may note that Afghanistan is peripheral to his worldview and the geopolitical battles he is pursuing, including a sharpening confrontation with China. They also contend that both Trump and Biden were simply reckoning with a fait accompli, as the United States and its allies could not indefinitely secure a weak Afghan government, especially as majorities of Americans in various polls showed little appetite for continuing the conflict. “Putting more soldiers and money on the line for a cause the country neither believes in nor can win will do nothing to bring back the lives lost and dollars wasted,” wrote Ian Bremmer in Time magazine. “We must honor the dead but make policy for the living.”

More broadly, analysts elsewhere despair of the U.S. delusions that surrounded the Afghan war, not least a strain of triumphalist American “exceptionalism” that shadows much of the current indignation in Washington. British journalist Anatol Lieven, a veteran Afghanistan watcher, decried the Bush-era imposition of a “good vs. evil” frame to the U.S. invasions that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “No approach was less appropriate to the fluid political allegiances and enduring kinship arrangements of Afghanistan,” he wrote. “But it warped the thinking: when I and others in Washington called for talks with the Taliban — for years, until it was too late — we were shouted down with cries of ‘the Taliban are evil’ and ‘America doesn’t talk to terrorists.’”

Many of the same doyens of the Washington establishment who are now outraged that the Taliban is back in power have been less vocal about the failures and shortcomings of the two decades spent keeping the militants at bay — years that saw hideous suffering for Afghans and widespread graft within the Afghan state that are now culminating in a devastating humanitarian and political crisis in the country.

“This is the deep lacuna in America’s foreign policy conversation,” wrote Ezra Klein in the New York Times. “The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.”

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