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The last plane carrying U.S. troops has left Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has suspended operations. Despite the frenzied, yet valiant efforts of our frontline troops and diplomats, the mission to evacuate U.S. citizens from Afghanistan has — in President Biden’s own words — been only 90% completed.
The debacle in Afghanistan is a disaster in every sense: Diplomatically, militarily, our counterterrorism program is diminished, and a humanitarian crisis emerging. This was a purely political decision that remained unchanged even as the situation on the ground changed dramatically. The decision was made, I believe, so that President Biden could appear to be a heroic figure that ended the “forever war” in Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
President Biden’s fatal April withdrawal decision set in motion a series of events that culminated in the collapse of the Afghan government, the dissipation of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Army, and allowed the Taliban to gain control of the country.
A quick review:
April: President Biden announced his decision to leave Afghanistan by August 31 in a “deliberate, measured, safe, and responsible manner.”
July: We abandoned Bagram Air Base without coordinating with our NATO or Afghan allies. President Biden stated in a July 8th speech, “We will stand by our Afghan partners…” In a question and answer session following his speech, he answered, “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. 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 an embassy from Afghanistan…”
August 15: Afghan President Ghani flees Kabul and Afghan National Police and Afghan Security Forces dissipate into thin air. The Taliban effectively take control of the entire country.
August 19: President Biden states, “If American citizens are left [in Afghanistan] we will get them out.”
August 20: President Biden states, “Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.”
August 31: In a speech to the nation, President Biden admits that only 90% of Americans have been able to leave by the deadline for withdrawal, meaning 10% remain.
We once again have in Afghanistan a nation-state ruled by the Taliban, along with a toxic witches brew of terror groups – a resurgent al Qaeda, ISIS-K, and the Haqqani Terror Network – who may fight against each other once in a while, but who are united in their fervent conviction to destroy the U.S., our allies and friends, and all who incline toward the West.
A wise leader would have told the Taliban that the timetable for our departure was premised on a stable Afghan government. Once the government fell, the president should have said that our commitment to leave remained, but that the timetable would have to be adjusted due to the change in the operating environment. In other words, we will leave once we complete our mission, which is to evacuate all Americans and our Afghan partners. If you (Taliban) want us out, you must give us the latitude to complete the mission, otherwise, all bets are off.
With at least 200 Americans now remaining in Afghanistan, the Taliban and more radical terror groups have leverage. These Americans are effectively hostages. We cannot destroy from the air the billions of dollars of military equipment left behind, because these terrorists may kill Americans if we do so. The president and his national security team must make it crystal clear to the Taliban that evacuating the remaining Americans and our Afghan partners is non-negotiable and is a precursor to any other deal.
The Biden team hopes that this will all go away, but recent polling tells a different story: 84% of Americans say we should have stayed until all Americans were out of the country; 71% say that we should have stayed until our Afghan partners were evacuated. In our polarized political environment, these are astounding numbers, and could well spell disaster for Democrats in the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election.
The “forever war” in Afghanistan is not over. The Biden administration has left in such a manner that a future American president and our troops will have to deal with this debacle for at least another two decades to come, but they will have to do so without a foothold in the country (we gave them away), without allies (because they are being hunted and killed), and against terrorists using our own weapons (because we left them there without disabling all of them).
The War on Terror and our presence in Afghanistan has not been perfect; mistakes have been made through multiple administrations. The decision by the Biden administration to leave – and to do so in such a chaotic manner even as the situation on the ground changed dramatically – has severely compromised our national security. While the White House and the Pentagon trade leaked accusations and blame-shift, American citizens remain in harm’s way. Our mission is not complete.
Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.