Most everyone agrees the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster. In a matter of days, the Taliban regained nearly complete control of the country, and U.S. citizens struggled to escape the country in time. The pressing question, however, is not whether it was handled well, but rather who is to blame for the disarray. That’s why Congress has begun inquiring into the Biden administration — to figure out what went wrong.
Make no mistake, there is a wrong way to withdraw, as the Biden administration demonstrated so perfectly. But those crying for even longer intervention in Afghanistan are missing a key takeaway: Not only did our two-decade occupation accomplish nothing, but our military leaders have also revealed a severe level of negligence that should concern every American.
Many legislators on Capitol Hill failed to see it that way. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Republicans on the Hill used this as an opportunity to rip into him. To many of these Republicans, the withdrawal wasn’t just poorly executed, it was a complete policy blunder — something that never should have happened in the first place.
The debate over leaving Afghanistan has raged on for almost as long as the war itself. Hawkish legislators and pundits have reliably predicted doom and gloom should the U.S. practice a more restrained and less intrusive foreign policy. The disarray of the withdrawal only seemed to confirm what they have been warning about for years.
Although the Biden administration needs to be held accountable for elements of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the president’s initial instincts were correct. In August, the president stated that “after 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.” This is an accurate assessment. There was never going to be a perfect time to bring troops home without some seismic shift in the power structure. After 20 years of being told otherwise by administrations from both parties, the Taliban was not on the brink of defeat. Another 20 years of occupation would not have changed that.
Many have suggested that the withdrawal went as poorly as it did because it was too “hasty.” Commentators and political figures on the left are suggesting this is because President Trump set the deadline. On the right, the argument serves to defend the idea that we never should have left the country at all. Regardless, the explanation is incredibly unsatisfactory.
The Pentagon has had 20 years to begin working on a proper exit strategy that would ensure the safety of all U.S. personnel and Afghan allies. It has been 15 years since George W. Bush declared in 2006 that “the days of the Taliban are over.” It has been ten years since former President Barack Obama addressed the nation to declare that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces. There was nothing hasty about any part of America’s presence in Afghanistan. If we didn’t have a proper plan to ensure the security of U.S. personnel and equipment, it is because the military leaders and professionals in the Pentagon failed to prepare.
The Biden administration shares plenty of the blame for how poorly the past month has been handled. No U.S. personnel, sensitive equipment, or allies who wish to seek refuge should ever be left behind. The fact that they each were to some extent is unacceptable. This was due not to the withdrawal itself, but to a lack of preparedness on the part of military leadership who refused to take the withdrawal seriously until it was too late.
This failure of strategy is unacceptable and unbecoming of our military leaders, and we shouldn’t tolerate it. The Afghanistan papers revealed that there was never a clear strategy throughout the war, and the fumbled troop withdrawal only confirmed this. The president should continue to trust his current instincts of intervention skepticism, but he also must realize that such a disorganized withdrawal could leave open the the need for the U.S. to return to the region in the future. In order to maintain lasting peace, the president’s military strategy must work with his foreign policy, not undermine it.
Caleb Franz is Program Manager with Young Voices and the host of “Profiles in Liberty.” The views expressed are the author's own.