The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Afghan lives ruined or lost will be part of Biden’s legacy

Schoolgirls sit inside a classroom on May 16 with bouquets of flowers on empty desks as a tribute to those killed in the May 8 bombing of the Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
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President Biden has been crystal clear about getting U.S. forces out of Afghanistan: He wants it done by Aug. 31. Come the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there must be no U.S. boots on the ground. The terrible problem is that by Sept. 11 the Taliban, unseated when the United States invaded 20 years ago, might be in complete control again. Mr. Biden’s precipitous withdrawal, as well as his refusal to offer more meaningful assistance to Afghanistan’s government, risks disaster.

Eleven provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban in recent days. The most pessimistic U.S. military planners have told The Post that the capital, Kabul, could fall within 30 days. Optimists think the Afghan government, which the United States has propped up at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and 2,312 American lives, could last 90 days.

Mr. Biden called it quits, he says, because after 20 years of trying to get Kabul to govern effectively and fight harder against the Taliban, there was still no outright victory or prospect of one. But the United States was stalemated, not defeated. There’s a difference — and how big a difference may soon become tragically apparent.

In addition to preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base for another 9/11, the United States achieved — or at least oversaw — real progress for the people of Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled between 1996 and 2001, it forbade schooling for girls; by 2015, the last year for which World Bank data exist, more than 50 percent of girls attended first grade. In 2006, the coed American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), which now enrolls more than 1,700 students, opened in Kabul, supported by U.S. government funds. It has partnerships with Stanford University, the University of California system and the University of Nebraska. A massive terrorist attack in August 2016 forced the AUAF to close, but it courageously reopened in 2017. Afghanistan’s media have grown into some of the country’s most trusted institutions. Most Afghans live in unfathomable poverty, but today’s per capita income of around $550 per year represents a 66 percent improvement in real terms since 2002, according to the World Bank.

All of this, and more, is at risk, which is why Afghans who can are already getting out or thinking of doing so. Also at risk is the United States’ reputation as a partner, as would-be allies around the world watch and calculate the value of an American commitment.

Mr. Biden surveys the impending disaster and absolves himself of any responsibility. It’s up to Afghan leaders, he said Tuesday, to come together. “They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”

The truth is they had been fighting, but the United States trained them to do it with support from U.S. advisers and contractors. Suddenly this support is gone. The Biden administration says it will take care of people who worked directly for the United States and face the most danger of Taliban violence and reprisal. This is the right thing to do. In a real sense, though, this country assumed at least partial responsibility for all Afghans. Leaving them now means walking away from that responsibility. Afghan lives ruined or lost will belong to Mr. Biden’s legacy just as surely as any U.S. dollars and lives his decision may save.