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The 20-Year Descent to the Predictably Ugly Afghanistan Withdrawal

That Biden took the political heat in ordering the Afghanistan withdrawal Trump had set in motion confers some credit to them both.

As incoming Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Rep. James Comer said last week he intends on holding hearings in 2023 to examine the Administration’s “botched Afghanistan withdrawal” and vowed to provide the American people “answers, transparency, and accountability.” America’s failure in Afghanistan was a two-decades-in-the-making process, however, and any effort to provide answers and accountability must include an exposure of the core problems over that timeframe and not simply how the final exit was executed.

First, it is crucial to recognize up front that the collapse that happened in August 2021 didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to the war. Major errors were detected early and a number of analysts warned the war was unwinnable early. In April 2009, just three months into Obama’s first term, I wrote in the Armed Forces Journal that unless the president was ready to wage a large-scale “existential battle to exterminate the Taliban from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, adding another 12,000 or 30,000 troops will amount to trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose.”

As it was, I continued, the United States was “fighting against the Taliban, against remnants of al-Qaida, against provincial warlords, against drug kingpins, against common thugs, against Afghan culture and against history.” Trying to surge a relatively small number of troops to obtain the political outcome of turning Afghanistan into a stable democracy committed the U. S. to “a fight we can’t win.”

In September of that year, an infamously leaked classified assessment of then-commander GEN Stanley McChrystal claimed that unless Obama sent an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan – on top of the 17,000 Obama had sent in February – the US risked “losing the war.” One month later, I wrote a 40-page analysis that argued surging more troops would likely fail, arguing instead for the withdrawal of the majority of U. S. and NATO troops, transitioning to a small counter-terror operation.

Pointedly, I wrote that it would “be a tragedy of historic proportions if the United States expended the enormous resources in time, money, and human life currently being contemplated, but proved unable to succeed and were later forced to withdraw in a Saigon-esque humiliating retreat.” As we know, of course, the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 was eerily similar to the fall of Saigon. I was far from the only person warning of looming failure, however.

In October 2009, a senior State Department official and decorated combat veteran from the Iraq war, Matthew Hoh, publicly resigned his position in Afghanistan in protest to the Obama Administration’s conduct of a war that could not be won. In his resignation letter, Hoh wrote that the United States was little more than a “supporting actor,” in a tragedy of a then-35 year civil war “that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah’s reign [in 1973], has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional.”

In an assessment published last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Hoh’s warnings proved prescient. The November SIGAR report explaining why the Afghan government and military fell apart in August 2021, the authors noted that, “the Afghan government’s high level of centralization, endemic corruption, and struggle to attain legitimacy were long-term contributors to its eventual collapse.”

In the 2001 Bonn Conference, the United States and allies brokered a new constitution for Afghanistan that featured a US-style presidential system. But owing to Afghanistan’s history and culture, the implementation of the system “raised the stakes for political competition and reignited long-running tensions between an urban elite eager to modernize and conservative rural populations distrustful of central governance.”

Every presidential election was, predictably, characterized by massive voter fraud, which served to undermine confidence in the government. By the time of the final presidential election in 2019, the population’s confidence in its government was so poor that “voter turnout was estimated at only 10 percent.” While there is much to find fault with the Biden Administration’s handling of the 2021 withdrawal, the reality is that failure had been baked in by that point and there was no “good” solution or clean withdrawal to be had. The one chance Washington had to end the mission in some order was lost in 2010.

When Obama took office, the Taliban had an estimated 25,000 fighters and control of only a small number of local districts and no provinces. Had Obama ordered a phased withdrawal over an 18 month period, the Afghan government would have had time to get its house in order while still under the security umbrella of the U. S. and NATO, and in all likelihood, both the government and the Afghan military would have still been effective upon our final exit, which itself would have been conducted in a professional and orderly manner.

Maybe the government would have eventually fallen, maybe it wouldn’t have. But the egregious failure of both the Bush and Obama Administrations to end the war ensured that the U. S. would never win militarily and that whenever the end finally did come, it would be ugly and humiliating. That Biden took the political heat in ordering the withdrawal that Trump had set in motion at least confers some credit to them both. The most crucial lesson that America needs to take from the fiasco of our August withdrawal: don’t fight wars we can’t win and don’t need to fight.

Also a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U. S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

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