In the words of the French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, “This is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.”
But this blunder has been a long time coming; every US president since George W. Bush has either tried to limit the American role in Afghanistan, or to get out entirely.
And now, after 20 years of war, the US leaves Afghanistan on the brink of where it all started: with the Taliban seemingly poised to control much of Afghanistan.
Shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration sent a small contingent of US Special Forces and CIA officers into Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaeda leaders who’d planned the attack on the US. Backed by massive US airpower and allied to large Afghan militias, they overthrew the Taliban in just three months.
It was one of the great victories of American unconventional warfare, but securing the peace proved harder than overthrowing the regime, a lesson that the US would relearn in Iraq in 2003 (Bush again) and in Libya in 2011 (this time, President Barack Obama).
But the fiasco that had unfolded in Iraq after US troops were pulled out in 2011 (an operation then-Vice President Joe Biden oversaw) loomed over any discussion of the Afghan drawdown. What happened in Iraq contributed to a vacuum that gave rise to the Islamic State (ISIS), and no one wanted a repeat of that in Afghanistan.
It was ultimately Biden’s decision to finish the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Could there have been another way? Perhaps. It could have been more politically and financially sustainable to “go light and go long” in Afghanistan, keeping several thousand US troops in the country focused on counterterrorism operations and supporting the Afghan military, while emphasizing the US’ commitment to stay in Afghanistan long-term. That commitment would have boosted the morale of the Afghan government and military and undercut the Taliban’s view that they could simply wait out the Americans — which they have done.
Now that Biden has finally done what two previous presidents have seriously considered, the likely result is that Afghanistan will descend into an intense civil war — and every jihadist terrorist group in the world will find a congenial home in the ensuing chaos.