- In just a matter of days, Afghanistan’s government has collapsed, its leaders have fled, and the Taliban has declared victory.
- Some have used the speed of that fall to argue that the US’s withdrawal was a mistake, but just the opposite is true.
- Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Following the Biden administration’s drawdown of the 20-year US war in Afghanistan, American intelligence officials predicted earlier this month, the Taliban could take control of the entire country within 90 days.
Just 72 hours after that forecast published, Afghanistan’s president fled the country and his government had disintegrated. Kabul fell to Taliban fighters, whose march across Afghanistan met remarkably little armed resistance as government forces largely surrendered, defected, or fled. The Taliban itself was reportedly surprised by the speed with which it was able to declare apparent victory in Afghanistan’s multi-decade civil war.
This denouement raises plenty of questions for US policy moving forward, the most immediately pressing of which involve how to safely evacuate Americans and Afghans who supported the US intervention (like translators and their families) from Kabul. It makes uncertain the fate of President Joe Biden’s longstanding plan to keep a smaller American military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely.
What it does not do, however, is change the fact that US military withdrawal from Afghanistan was long overdue. If anything, the rapidity with which the Taliban took over Afghanistan proves the wisdom and necessity of the exit.
The initial retaliatory US mission in Afghanistan was achieved quite quickly, within several months of the 9/11 attacks that occasioned it.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum may be correct in his recent speculation that had 9/11 mastermind and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden been captured or killed in those early months, the war in Afghanistan might have ended completely and swiftly at the close of 2001, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, we stayed, and the US mission in Afghanistan began to creep.
Nation building became the new focus and directionless failure the theme. US officials and military brass lied to the public about the war – repeatedly, deliberately, egregiously – as The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers demonstrated at length in 2019.
They made “rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and [hid] unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” The Post reported. They “botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption [and] build a competent Afghan army and police force.” And year after year, the Taliban regained strength and territory.
Even the noblest aims were muddied by missteps and horrors, if indeed they were achieved at all. Afghanistan remained near the bottom of global development indices while US spending there exceeded the Marshall Plan. US airstrikes killed terrorists – but they killed thousands of innocent civilians, including children, too.
In 2018, Time Magazine reported “an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls [did] not attend school. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women [were] illiterate, while 70-80 percent face[d] forced marriage, many before the age of 16. A September  watchdog report called the USAID’s $US280 ($AU388) million Promote program – billed the largest single investment that the US government has ever made to advance women’s rights globally – a flop and a waste of taxpayer’s money.”
Most Afghan suicide attempts were committed by women, the Time report said, and nearly all Afghan women had suffered domestic abuse.
This month – after thousands of American and tens of thousands of Afghan deaths, and with hundreds of billions of dollars spent, borrowed, wasted, and lost – Kabul collapsed.
Some have used the speed of that fall to argue withdrawal was a mistake, but just the opposite is true. What has happened in Afghanistan is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term: It is a revelation.
It shows, as Biden himself said in his speech defending the decision to depart, that “if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that one more year, five more years, or 20 more years of US military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.”
It shows the US-supported government in Kabul was just that, and it couldn’t stand once the support was gone. There were many indicators this was so, and now it is demonstrated once and for all.
“[T]his rout suggests that everything was worse than [Washington] admitted,” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat rightly argued, and prolonging the occupation was at best embalming a “rotten status quo.”
Whether the end of that status quo will be good for Afghanistan remains to be seen.
The Taliban’s new assurances – about women’s rights, amnesty for US sympathizers, media freedom, and rejection of terrorism – deserve a skeptical eye given the group’s bloody history. However, after so many years of war, polling shows the Afghan people are incredibly eager for peace, even if the end of armed conflict doesn’t achieve other goods. On average, pollsters reported earlier this year, Afghans considered Taliban control of the government an acceptable condition of peace.
Though the exit itself has drawn harsh criticism in both countries, Americans overwhelmingly supported ending our role in the war in Afghanistan as well-and so we should. Further intervention, occupation, and nation building would have meant further failure, and none of it was necessary to keep the United States secure. The final days of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan have been chaotic and tragic, and it’s too soon to say if the Taliban’s ascendancy will bring the end to armed conflict Afghans want. Leaving was still the right call.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.