The United States was never going to win in Afghanistan, if a definition of victory were even possible. Twenty years ago, when the mission shifted from removing the Taliban from power to nation building the die was cast. The U.S. would ultimately prove unable to remake the entire culture in its own image.
President Joe Biden recommitted to a deal crafted with Taliban leaders during the previous administration, but even the most sanguine members of both White House staffs believed that it was inevitable that the government the U.S. set up would only be able to hold them off for at most two or three years. President Trump, who had believed that he would win a second term, would not have wanted a Taliban takeover during his second term, and President Biden, similarly, would not be eager to have the country’s fall around his or any other Democrat’s neck in 2024. More than getting out, however, the question really should be avoiding the next doomed overseas adventure.
U.S. policy there after the 2001 takeover was trapped in the fantasy that Washington knew what the Afghan people wanted. To achieve this, the West installed a powerful central government and institutions like courts to support it. Corruption blossomed under the new system. Those lucky enough to obtain positions of authority had plenty of opportunities for self-enrichment. A 2016 report from the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found graft at every level, including within the country’s presidency. Billions in U.S. investment were siphoned away by politically connected players. In part, the Afghan military’s fighting strength was fiction, paper soldiers created by brazen commanders who took the money for themselves and their government enablers. And that money came largely from American taxpayers.
Then there was the human cost. An estimated 70,000 Afghan police and armed forces members have been killed since the war began in 2001, and there were more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers killed. More than 1,000 troops from other nations died. Civilian deaths neared 50,000, and there were 3,800 U.S. private contractors and Department of Defense citizens, more than 400 aid workers, and more than 70 journalists who died.
It may be fair to say that the present chaotic scene at the Kabul airport is a debacle, but the far bigger disaster began 20 years ago, when the U.S. embarked on a mission that was doomed from the start. The most important question now is how to avoid the next endless war.