SHAPIRO: Here’s What Went Wrong In Afghanistan — And What We Should Have Done Differently


We are currently watching one of the greatest and most horrible debacles in the history of the United States unfold in Afghanistan. This debacle has both causes and consequences. The causes range from mission creep to myopia, from foolishness to cowardice. The consequences will reverberate from Afghanistan to Taiwan to the United States itself.

To understand just what has happened — and what comes next — we must examine the current collapse in Afghanistan from three different perspectives: the tactical; the geostrategic; and the moral.

The Tactical Collapse Of The United States

Put aside for the moment the American mission in Afghanistan — whether our full-scale invasion was the right idea, or whether it fell prey to mission creep, or whether indeed, the United States should have remained in Afghanistan indefinitely with a skeleton force costing a fraction of America’s initial investment. We’ll examine such questions presently.

Begin with a simple fact: President Biden’s precipitous, contingency-free pullout from Afghanistan is one of the most extraordinarily idiotic moves in the history of military interventionism. It’s not that Biden chose to pull out. It’s how he chose to pull out.

On April 14, 2021, Biden announced that the United States would begin a final pullout from Afghanistan. “It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden stated. “It’s time for American troops to come home.” Biden stated that the terrorist threat from Afghanistan had been successfully neutralized, and explained that the country would not become a base for terror activities again. Biden made the announcement despite an intelligence report that same week predicting that the Taliban would be “likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” By Biden’s timeline, however, the troops would begin their withdrawal by May 1.

At this point, there were fewer than 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan; it was no longer America’s “longest war” in any technical sense, given that no combat troops had been killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, and that the number of American casualties in Afghanistan had dropped to 11 in 2015. The United States’ military presence in Afghanistan had been reduced to its smallest footprint since 2001, and the job of the US military was to provide technical and air support for the Afghan military.

So, how did things continue to operate? How did the Afghan military maintain even a semblance of control over any portion of the country? According to The Wall Street Journal, the Afghan military had built its entire mechanism around such support:

The Afghan army fighting alongside American troops was molded to match the way the Americans operate. The U.S. military, the world’s most advanced, relies heavily on combining ground operations with air power, using aircraft to resupply outposts, strike targets, ferry the wounded, and collect reconnaissance and intelligence.

When it became clear that the United States would abandon its airbases in Afghanistan — and along with those airbases, the air support it directly provided to the Afghan military — the Afghans had literally no capacity to operate anymore, and everyone knew it. As The Wall Street Journal said, “In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”

TOPSHOT - Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

It’s even worse than, that according to The Daily Beast, the Afghan air force — the only force capable of supplementing their hundreds of firebases on the ground spread thin across Afghanistan — relied on foreign contractors for upkeep and maintenance. Biden withdrew them and refused to allow them to remain:

The country’s mostly U.S.-provided air fleet was dependent on foreign contractors to assist with maintenance. As the U.S. withdrawal took hold, the Biden administration refused to allow contractors into the country to service the aircraft, effectively grounding some of the Afghan Air Force at the same time as the U.S. had withdrawn direct air support to Afghan forces.

Furthermore, it is common military knowledge in Afghanistan that the Taliban have a fighting season — they only fight in the non-winter. Delaying the American pullout until the weather turned would have at least provided a natural barrier against the lightning invasion the Taliban pulled off; the Afghan government asked for just that, a delay until October. Biden refused:

Afghan officials had hoped that a drawback timed with the beginning of winter could buy them more time to strengthen defenses against the Taliban. But the Biden administration pushed ahead with its own timeline.

The Biden administration had to know all of this was the case. They had removed every single element of support necessary for the Afghan military to even have a fighting chance of retaining any area of control in Afghanistan. And yet Biden continued to maintain the lie that the Taliban would not retake the country quickly and easily. In July, he lied that we would “ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force.” At that same press conference, he infamously stated that there was “zero” comparison between what was happening in Afghanistan and what had happened in Vietnam, when the Democratic Congress cut off all support for the South Vietnamese government, leading to the fall of Saigon: “The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army,” the doddering commander-in-chief stated. “They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable…The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

This was either a flat lie or the most addlebrained remark in the history of American foreign policy. In either case, it shows that President Biden is a disgrace to his office.

The Geostrategic Collapse Of The United States

All of this leads to the second major failure for the United States inherent in America’s Afghanistan collapse: the geostrategic failure.

The United States had two geostrategic goals in Afghanistan: the preservation of a base of operations from which to strike terrorist targets, and the continued maintenance of American credibility toward both our enemies and our allies.

DEH AFGHAN, AFGHANISTAN - JUNE 22: American soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division deploy to fight Taliban fighters as part of Operation Mountain Thrust to a U.S. base near the village of Deh Afghan on June 22, 2006 in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. The US military announced today that four American soldiers were killed in fighting after coalition forces attacked enemy extremists in north-eastern Afghanistan. The anti-Taliban operation, mainly by American, British and Canadian forces, entered it's second week across a vast area in southern Afghanistan. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

John Moore/Getty Images

We have now failed on both fronts.

Biden declared just last month that one of the primary goals in Afghanistan was to “keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.” Now, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley has informed Congress that terror groups are likely to reconstitute in Afghanistan in the very near future. According to Dr. Sajjan Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation, there are some 250-500 members of al Qaeda in Kunar, a heavily forested valley region of Afghanistan; Gohel says that number is likely to increase, and given the United States’ lack of access to any intelligence network and its surrender of all airbases in Afghanistan — as well as Pakistan’s newfound quid pro quo with Afghanistan to reject US bases on Pakistani territory — it’s quite likely that terrorist groups will reconstitute quickly in Afghanistan.

Then there is the question of American credibility.

The West’s abandonment of Hong Kong in the face of Chinese aggression last year; the West’s continuing desire for a rapprochement with the Iranian mullahcracy; the West’s routine appeasement of Russia all speak to the unwillingness of the West — and the West’s leader, the United States — to stand up for allies anywhere on earth. Afghanistan is simply the latest, and by far the most stunning, example of abandonment of an American ally. The United States simply walked away from its allies in Afghanistan, leaving tens of thousands of them to meet their fate, with no viable opportunity to escape. That was a choice, and an obvious choice: the United States could have maintained a military presence long enough to ensure that those with whom we worked could preserve their lives, and that those who didn’t wish to live under the auspices of a barbaric eighth-century regime could escape. We didn’t, and we chose not to.

Our enemies can see this. And they are moving.

China has already signaled that it will recognize the Taliban’s rule, and will work with the Taliban to increase Chinese influence in the region via its Belt and Road Initiative; China hopes to get its hands on Afghanistan’s possible trillion-dollar rare-earth metals. For their part, the Taliban has already signaled that it will work with China, and doesn’t give a damn about Muslim Uyghurs being imprisoned in Xinjiang. China’s embassy in Afghanistan remains open. China has also solidified relations with Pakistan, presenting a solid face against India.

But that’s just the beginning. China’s Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, chortled, “From what happened in Afghanistan, those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and U.S. military won’t come to help. As a result, the [Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan] will quickly surrender.” Indeed, given the window presented by the Biden Administration, it would be somewhat of a surprise if China didn’t attempt some sort of action against Taiwan in the next few years.

Foreign policy abhors vacuums, and the United States has now created one. That means that erstwhile American allies will begin to play footsie with countries like Russia and China, believing that American commitments mean little. They have reason for such suspicions, obviously.

The Moral Collapse Of The United States

We originally went to Afghanistan in order to root out al Qaeda and depose the Taliban in the aftermath of September 11. George W. Bush announced America’s attack on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, stating:

The attack took place on American soil, but it was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world. And the world has come together to fight a new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century; a war against all those who seek to export terror and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.

There was no mention of nation-building. But in order to prevent the Taliban from simply returning to power, some alternative had to be provided in Afghanistan. The United States chose to foster a nascent democracy.

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 1: In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Army, U.S. President George W. Bush shakes hands with Sgt. Derek Kessler of the 10th Mountain Division, during a surprise visit by the president and first lady Laura Bush to speak to U.S. soldiers March 1, 2006 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (Photo by Brian Schroeder/U.S. Army via Getty Images)

Brian Schroeder/U.S. Army via Getty Images

This was a form of mission creep, to be sure. And many of the justifications for the war after its initial phase turned from ensuring a base for American operations against terror and continued degradation of Afghanistan’s terror-housing capacity — the true purpose of the war — toward the humanistic. America’s rhetorical approach shifted from realpolitik to Wilsonian democracy-building.

This was an enormous mistake by the Bush administration. By 2009, George W. Bush left office celebrating that “Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school.” While true and worth celebrating, this statement reflected an obvious shift in priorities: America would not have gone to war to allow Afghan women the opportunity to go to school alone. And this shift in priorities allowed opponents of the Afghanistan war to present it as an inherent and continuing mistake: as a quixotic, often-blundering offense against the human rights it supposedly sought to forward, as evidenced by Barack Obama in 2008 (“And that requires us to have enough troops that we’re not just air raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there”) and as a foolhardy errand in human rights by the quasi-isolationist right, as evidenced by Donald Trump in 2016 (“We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place”). Both Obama and Trump negotiated with the Taliban in an attempt to establish enough stability to end the war — a foolish strategy given the Taliban’s obvious unwillingness to deal honestly. Both Obama and Trump recognized enough, however, to understand that abandoning Afghanistan without any strategy would result in mass carnage, and undermine the true mission in Afghanistan — and so neither precipitously pulled out, as Obama had done in Iraq leading to ISIS’ rise. As Trump said in 2017, “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically, I like following my instincts…[But] the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.”

Joe Biden, however, would not allow his responsibilities as president overcome his commitment to his perverse ideas about Afghanistan. And so he pulled out.

And America’s moral failure in Afghanistan has been fulfilled. We have failed ourselves by restoring the rule of precisely the same evil entity that presided over al Qaeda’s September 11 attack; we have failed our allies by subjecting them to slaughter in the streets of Afghanistan.

The ghastly images speak for themselves:

American helicopters evacuating the American embassy ahead of the onrushing eighth-century barbarian Taliban in images all-too-reminiscent of American helicopters leaving Saigon, Vietnam in 1975;

Afghans rushing the airport to escape the onrushing eighth-century barbarian Taliban.

Afghans clinging to the wheels of American military aircraft at liftoff.

Afghans, attempting any measure to avoid the murderous theocratic tyranny of the Taliban, dropping thousands of feet to their deaths.

The snippets of information emerging from Afghanistan are even worse:

The Taliban apparently going house-to-house in Kabul, “killing pilots and SOFs [members of the Afghan Special Operations Forces], raping their families, and taking their houses”;

The Taliban seizing control of incredibly sophisticated caches of American military equipment, including drones, humvees, and MRAPs, as well as our $700 million embassy;

Tens of thousands of American allies stuck in Afghanistan, unable to escape, waiting for their imprisonment, torture, or death;

The Taliban painting over images of women in an attempt to restore theocratic cleansing of women from the public square;

Women locking themselves in their homes, in fear of a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule, in which female education was forbidden, modesty rules were enforced with a whip, and young girls were married off as child brides.

America is not responsible for human rights everywhere. But we are certainly responsible for not abandoning those who have risked life and limb to help us fight terrorism, turning a country with at least a semblance of a chance into an irredeemable hellhole for some 38 million people, complete with massively restored terrorist threat to boot.

American surrender has consequences.

Biden’s Insane Defense

The utter disconnect between the Biden Administration and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan was crystal clear as this week’s terrifying events unfolded. As the Taliban overran Kabul, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced, “The US, the international community, and the Afghan government must do everything we can to protect women and girls from inhuman treatment by the Taliban.”

Everything we can? We had just withdrawn the only protective force from Afghanistan.

The State Department issued a joint statement with dozens of other countries announcing, “The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. We in the international community stand ready to assist them.”

Stand ready to assist them? We had just abandoned them.

Then there was Biden himself.

As the tragedy unfolded, the White House tweeted out a picture of Biden sitting alone in the Situation Room, an extraordinarily feeble image of an extraordinarily feeble presidency:

Initially, the White House announced that Biden wouldn’t speak about the situation for a few days; White House press secretary Jen Psaki similarly announced via automated email that she was on vacation.

Then, slammed with the complete and utter collapse not only of Afghanistan but of his presidency, Biden rushed back to the White House to deliver a speech that could be best summed up as “The Buck Stops Everywhere Else.”

Sounding rambling and defensive, Biden began by explaining that his team was “moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every constituency, including — and contingency — including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now.” This was clearly untrue — as stated, tens of thousands of American allies remain on the ground, and will remain there either as prisoners or as corpses. Then Biden got into the excuse-making. First, he made the utterly specious argument that the only reason we remained in Afghanistan was for nation-building, blustering, “it was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” As for the renewed terror threat from Afghanistan, that threat had already been “degraded,” and America’s removal from the region would not hamper that effort — as we have seen, an extraordinarily dubious claim.

Biden then tried to use as examples of American counterterrorism “al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.” In each of these scenarios, the United States has military force on the ground in arena, at the very least, as in Somalia, assisting allied forces against terrorism. We just removed our capacity to do the same in Afghanistan, despite Biden’s protestations to the contrary.

Then Biden moved on to his second excuse: Trump. “When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 — just a little over three months after I took office…The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.” But, of course, the Trump administration’s agreement to leave was contingent on the Taliban fulfilling certain preconditions which they had not and were not going to fulfill. Furthermore, Biden has had no problem abrogating any other death Trump made. Blaming Trump was sophistry.

Biden continued by attempting a false binary: it was either leave, or war: “There would have been no ceasefire after May 1.  There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1.  There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1. There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.”

This was patently untrue. The actual status quo, as explained, did not posit a full-scale war: NATO combat operations ended in 2014. And Biden’s pathetic attempt to explain that simple fact away by posing a false binary — either endless war or withdrawal — ignored the actual status quo.

Finally, Biden admitted the truth: “I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you.  The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” But in doing so, he chose to then cast the blame on the Afghan military he had abandoned, thousands of whom he had probably consigned to murder: “So what’s happened?  Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country.  The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, DC.

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The right decision. This is somewhat like arguing that the descent of America’s major cities into crippling murder rates over the past year simply underscores the correctness of defunding the police.

Yet Biden continued to double and triple down on this asinine point. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future,” Biden said. “There’s some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers, but if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.” This was yet another lie. The United States equipped the military with a particular strategy; we then undercut the strategy.

As Biden’s speech continued, his excuses became ever-more-preposterous. He claimed, oddly, that “our true strategic competitors — China and Russia — would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.” As we have seen, both China and Russia have enthusiastically embraced America’s humiliating withdrawal.

Finally, Biden embraced the complete moral backwardness of his position: he was morally righteous for abandoning a status quo in which zero American troops were dying in favor of a new world in which the Taliban rule a country of 38 million people and provide the base for anti-Western terrorism again. In rhetoric reminiscent of the anti-Vietnam War nonsense of that dark time, Biden said, “So I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?   How many more lives — American lives — is it worth?  How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?”

There are no more rows of headstones thanks to Afghanistan. That part of the war ended years ago. But Biden wanted his photo op.

Now he’ll get it.

Only that photo op will be corpses in the streets; women raped; Afghans plummeting from American planes; burning American flags and dead American allies. And the disgusting spectacle of a cretinous president pleading to “support the Afghan people” and “speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people” and make “human rights…the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery” as our erstwhile allies lock themselves in their homes, awaiting the brutality that awaits them when their doors open.

“I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me,” Biden concluded.

If it does, he should bear the brunt of any American anger at our utter humiliation on the world stage, the dereliction of our duty, and the rise of our enemies. And if Americans can’t muster such anger, then the American era ended years ago.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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