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America’s ugly exit from Afghanistan became inevitable years ago

Once former President Donald Trump agreed to leave Afghanistan by May 1, President Joe Biden had an unwinnable hand.

Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport on Monday, 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.
Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport on Monday, 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.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

After making one mistake after another in Afghanistan over two decades, the United States was never going to leave in a humane, fair and orderly way.

From the moment the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, diverting its attention from leading the effort to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, the die was cast. A back-burner effort to build up a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan was doomed, if it ever even stood a chance.

It would have been difficult enough to help build a new Afghan nation had the United States given the project its full attention. American leaders would have had to educate themselves about Afghan’s tribal and family ties, which can be more important than loyalties to political entities. They would have had to steep themselves in the nation’s culture. They would have had to accept the reality that our Western nation’s values were not necessarily theirs.

Instead, the United States floundered. Unsure of its commitment. Lost to its mission. Over the years, the number of soldiers in Afghanistan waxed and waned as the United States sought elusive stability. As many as 140,000 troops under American command were in Afghanistan at one time. Those numbers had dropped to 2,500 by the time President Joe Biden took office.

Because former President Donald Trump had agreed that the United States would leave Afghanistan by May 1, Biden had an unwinnable hand. His only choices were to honor that agreement or press on with the “forever war.” As Biden said in his speech Monday, the status quo was not an option.

It cannot have been an easy choice for Biden, who has deep diplomatic experience in this region of the world and understands what the fallout might be. Pakistan may now be destabilized. The images of desperate Afghans clinging to a jet plane will not build trust in America as an ally. Enemies likely will be emboldened.

Clearly, Biden and his military generals thought they had more time to whisk away to safety the thousands of Afghan civilians who had helped the U.S. mission. As recently as July 8, Biden said, “The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

In retrospect, obviously, he and advisers were flat wrong. Wishful thinking. And now fear is sweeping across Afghanistan as brutal Taliban rule returns. There will be reprisal killings. There will be lashings in the street, as before. Girls and women will again be stripped of the most basic human rights, as before.

Even amid the collapse, even as the window quickly closes on the American military’s ability to fly rescue missions out of Afghanistan, our nation must do all it can to rescue those who quite rationally live in terror of being left behind.

That the Afghanistan military showed so little resistance, even with a huge numerical advantage and with arms provided by America, revealed just how unrealistic it was to ever believe the U.S. could build up a new nation strong enough to resist the Taliban. Yes, Afghan soldiers complained about not getting paid, about not having enough food, about running short on ammunition. But something more basic was at work: They simply lacked the sense of national purpose and identity they needed to stave off defeat.

The United States has spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan. At least 2,448 American service members have been killed.

Enough.

The casket of U.S. Army Spc. Michael Nance, a soldier from the South Side who was killed in Afghanistan, after his funeral at Trinity United Church of Christ, in August 2019.
The casket of U.S. Army Spc. Michael Nance, a soldier from the South Side who was killed in Afghanistan, after his funeral at Trinity United Church of Christ, in August 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The usual suspects, beginning with House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, are ripping into Biden for the collapse in Kabul, but their criticisms ring hollow. They lost all credibility over the last two years with their dishonesty about COVID-19 and the 2020 election. They put party politics ahead of their nation’s interests then, and there’s no reason to believe they’re doing anything else now.

Americans are war-weary. They are tired of the arrogant presumption that we can remake other countries to our liking. They grieve for the soldiers who have died and want no more to die. Not when nothing will change.

We are thinking, for example, about Army Spc. Michael Isaiah Nance, a paratrooper from Chicago, who had been in Afghanistan for just two weeks in the summer of 2019 when he was killed in combat. He was 24 and enjoyed watching Marvel movies. He loved wrestling, eating soul food and playing video games with his little brother.

Enough.

Not one more American soldier should die in a war that Afghan soldiers won’t fight themselves. Even as the American exit is a bloody mess.

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