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Total withdrawal from Afghanistan: Two years later

Editor's ChoiceTotal withdrawal from Afghanistan: Two years later

At the White House, it’s rumoured that Afghanistan is not to be mentioned… the shame, the failure is so great… the political implications so devastating.

Two years after President Joe Biden’s withdrawal, on the anniversary of 9-11, Afghanistan can well be described as the greatest foreign policy failure in our country’s history—an abject surrender of a whole nation, a caving-in to mortal enemies of America and our way of life, a geopolitical error on a grand scale leaving behind strategically located airbases and state of the art weaponry. We had stalemate in Korea for three quarters of a century, but stalemate was rejected for Afghanistan. Both South Korea and Afghanistan are in bad neighbourhoods. Both had American and allied forces. Both had an enemy with powerful backing—China and Russia for North Korea, Pakistan for the Taliban. President Biden, in the corner of Western Civilization for this fight, threw in the towel.

Why, it may be asked, is it such an American debacle, worse than, say, Vietnam? Because it was gratuitous, unnecessary, and simply didn’t have to happen… because the suffering of tens of millions was avoidable.

Unlike Vietnam, where 57,000 Americans were killed, the death total of Americans in Afghanistan was 2,500. Alongside those Americans, over 70,000 Afghans were killed in their fight against the Taliban. Those Americans and Afghans died for a cause—the independence and the safety of a nation of 40 million citizens and the protection of Americans and others all over the world from terrorism.

After the abandonment of our Afghan ally and the return of Afghanistan to a global center for terrorist groups, that sacrifice seems, tragically, in vain.

By the time we left, the very capable Afghan commandos, who we trained to fight like our Special Forces, were doing the bulk of the fighting and dying. The loss of 2,500 Americans lives is devastating, but their sacrifice was made in pursuit of worthy humanitarian and geopolitical goals. Geopolitically, geostrategically, America’s multi-billion-dollar airbases in Afghanistan gave us a leg up on two of our greatest adversaries—Shindand, 75 miles from the Iranian border, and Bagram Air Base, a 400-mile flight right up the Wakhan Peninsula to the border of western China. One can only imagine the leverage these locations provided to deter Iran’s Middle East aggressions or China’s designs to take Taiwan or threaten India. Think of the importance of an India-friendly country on Pakistan’s western border.

It’s no wonder that Iran, Russia and China all financially supported their own contingents of Taliban and were so adamant about seeing the US leave Afghanistan.

Question: What have been the consequences?
Answer: The virtual enslavement of the female population and the denial of an entire generation we encouraged to seek freedom, education and equality. Extrajudicial killings of those friends of America, people who worked hand-in-glove with us, thousands, now stranded, in-hiding and hunted down, tortured and murdered. Men who helped us, forced to watch their daughters and wives raped by vengeful Taliban fighters. The UN says some 800 “extrajudicial killings” have been reported by the UN. How many others, unreported, have, perhaps in some outlying area, had their homes broken into and taken a bullet in the head or been dragged away to some terrible fate?
The blowing up of 13 American servicemen and women and the death of 170 Afghans on August 26, 2021 at Hamid Karzai Airport, is one of those days that will “live in infamy” for the American people because of the sheer horror and, again, the fact that it should never have happened. The Biden administration’s lack of planning and preparedness for the withdrawal adds to the infamy. Beyond the death of 13 Americans and more than 170 Afghans, the hundreds of Americans and Afghans who weren’t killed, but who will suffer their wounds for the rest of their lives, should never have been subjected to the ISIS-K suicide bomber’s explosion. A Marine sniper testified before Congress that he was refused permission multiple times by the U.S. chain of command to take the bomber out when he had the bomber in his sights, suicide vest and all.

Why has there been no accountability for that decision? Not even a response?

Why has no one in the administration resigned in protest?

Why haven’t the President and his White House paid requisite attention to the Gold and Silver Star Mothers to help assuage their grief?

Why hasn’t the President apologized to them and the American people for looking at his watch several times during the solemn ceremony for the returned dead?

Why? Because the debacle of Afghanistan is such an embarrassment for this President and his team, a black mark, a signal of incompetence and cold-heartedness recognized by the whole world.

At the White House, it’s rumoured that Afghanistan is not to be mentioned… the shame, the failure is so great… the political implications so devastating. To be sure, their perseverance in supporting Ukraine is real and is much appreciated by people like me… but it also powerfully distracts from scrutiny over Afghanistan. It changes the subject away from their failure in Afghanistan and provides cover for that disaster.

Indeed, a diversity of opinion over Ukraine is united by a simple fact: Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was in large part due to the weakness he observed in the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the abandonment of an ally.
The unmitigated disaster started with President Trump giving stature and recognition to the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, like they were some kind of alternative government. This was just a part of the high price the Trump administration was willing to pay to the Taliban to get negotiations over ending the war.
A far larger price was the sidelining of the elected government of Afghanistan from the talks, even though it was their nation’s very fate at stake. That slap in the face left the Afghan people with no real say about a deal being struck with their enemy which would define their future. Lack of representation of the Afghan government as part of the Doha negotiations was a significant mistake and seminal in pulling the rug out from under our Afghan allies. Afghans understood the implications for their future.

Another major Trump concession in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table was the release from prison of some 5,000 criminals and terrorists. When the Ghani government reluctantly released 4,600 but kept 400 whose crimes involved deadly terrorist acts or murder, the Trump administration pressured the Afghan government to release the remaining 400. Many went right back to the battlefield. The Taliban were playing hard to get and the Trump administration, most anxious to start negotiations, caved to their demands.

Republicans need to understand that the Trump administration is, in part, responsible for the debacle that followed.

When Joe Biden became President, things went from bad to worse. It is the height of irony that when he became President, Joe Biden cancelled almost every Trump policy that was working for the American people—energy self-sufficiency, a secure southern border, a reigning-in of regulatory overkill, the return of manufacturing jobs—and yet he chose to stick with the Trump policy of total U.S withdrawal. As Bob Gates wrote in 2014, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War”, “Joe Biden has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”. Well, as of this writing, we can add a fifth.

In sum, President Biden doubled down on keeping the Trump Afghanistan policy that was political in nature, arbitrary and historically unsupportable. There’s no substance to the cliché, “endless or forever wars”. Wars are either won, lost or fought to stalemate given the support the Taliban received from Pakistan. President Biden rejected stalemate and ended up losing Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam where stalemate was also rejected and great loss was the result, there was no significant political opposition to our role in Afghanistan, not in the Congress and not on the streets. Indeed, Afghanistan enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the Congress. Organizations all over the country offered support for the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women.

All of Biden’s major advisors—National Security, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and the Commander of CentComm—advised keeping the 2,500 U.S. troops in the country. Americans in and out of the government were opposed to complete withdrawal. Infrastructure and airbases had already been built and, the weaponry was there. Annual operating costs of our reduced presence is estimated to have been from 2.5% to 3.5% of the defense budget. Seems reasonable given the resources we spend to contain threats from Iran and China and deter international terrorism. Also, our NATO allies did not want to withdraw their own 7,500 troops but were constrained to follow the U.S. lead. India, the second biggest contributor to Afghanistan reconstruction, was left high and dry. Some 17,000 contractors who were working in the country, many in tech support services for the Afghan government and military were willing to stay.

With regard to NATO, perhaps we should factor in the cost of the war in Ukraine and the suffering of the Ukrainian people, both likely results of the America’s conduct of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Biden stubbornly, arrogantly, refused to listen to a contingent of bipartisan political leaders, America’s NATO allies and his closest advisors. The limited vocal Republican opposition in Congress was hesitancy to oppose the Trump policy of total withdrawal and likewise with the Democrats and President Biden.

But in the end, it was President Joe Biden who was responsible for following through on what President Trump had set into motion and so, must be held accountable for the tragedy that ensued. As he likes to say, “the buck stops here”. And that’s exactly what history will show.

On a final note, what has yet to be fully appreciated is the long-term damage to America’s reputation for both competence and trustworthiness as an ally, particularly in the developing world. That cost is presently incalculable.

Don Ritter served 14 years in Congress: Regarding Afghanistan, starting in 1979 when the USSR invaded and working throughout the 1980s to evict the then USSR from Afghanistan as House co-Chairman with the Senate of the Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan and ranking member of the Helsinki Commission; led the Afghanistan Foundation in calling attention to Taliban excesses in the latter 1990s, led a Foundation delegation to Afghanistan in 1998 to meet with the Taliban; was a founder in 2002 of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and later, for 9 years, President & CEO of the organization. He has traveled to the country some 50 times over the last 20 years, helping to set up the country-wide Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and personally invested in a number of businesses during that time, most notably, in Kabul, the largest laundry and dry cleaning plant in that part of the world. He is currently President & CEO Emeritus of AACC and remains active in that organization.

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