The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Afghanistan disaster started with the withdrawal’s most ardent critics

Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Aug. 15. (Zabi Karimi/AP)
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With Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country and Taliban forces entering Kabul on Sunday, the blame game is rampant in Washington. And much of the finger-pointing is coming from the perspectives most responsible for magnifying this catastrophe in the first place.

On “Fox News Sunday,” former secretary of state Mike Pompeo told host Chris Wallace, “If the risks weren’t so serious, Chris, it would be pathetic. … This is in the context of the Biden administration that has basically abandoned the global stage in favor of climate change. They’ve been focused on critical race theory while the embassy is at risk.” As Wallace pointed out, though, it was Pompeo, under President Donald Trump, who negotiated the deal with the Taliban that Biden is now withdrawing under. And while Pompeo insisted to Wallace that Trump would have been tougher with the Taliban, that doesn’t square with Pompeo’s promising last year that the Taliban would “work alongside of us to destroy” al-Qaeda.

But it’s easy to rebut a Trump official’s incompetence, just as it’s easy to criticize how the Biden administration and the intelligence community got caught wildly off guard by the speed of the Taliban’s advance. These failures, however, came at the end of a 20-year disaster; avoiding such a long error in the future means going back to the roots of the problem. Those roots can be found in the views expressed by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) on ABC’s “This Week,” views shared by many other centrist and interventionist politicians and media voices.

“The catastrophe that we’re watching unfold right now across Afghanistan did not have to happen,” Cheney told host Jonathan Karl. “This is not ending the war. What this is doing actually is perpetuating it. What we have done, and what we’re seeing in Afghanistan, is instead of keeping 2,500 forces on the ground, which with air power, working with the Afghans, we were able to keep the Taliban at bay.”

Cheney — like many who share her view — did not include a timeline for those 2,500 forces. Nor did she mention anything more specific than “working with the Afghans” to explain how, if those forces came home five or 10 or 20 years from now, the Taliban wouldn’t return to power just as quickly.

"The Afghanistan Papers" author Craig Whitlock explains how presidents misled the public about the war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

This ill-defined, kick-the-can-down-the-road approach has defined the Afghan war for most, if not all, of its 20 years. Before Biden and Trump, Barack Obama promised multiple times that the United States was winding down its presence, only to reverse course. And before that, when the United States invaded in 2001, the George W. Bush administration could have stuck to a narrow mission that focused on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Indeed, in December of that year, the Taliban, smashed by the U.S.-led offensive, offered to demobilize, surrender their stronghold in Kandahar and negotiate a settlement with the new U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai. The Bush administration rejected the offer.

Instead, Bush committed the United States to building a new Afghan state and army. The latter has completely collapsed over a matter of days, but the former may have been even more embarrassing. From Karzai to Ghani, corruption and impotence have been the government’s defining characteristics. And all the while, as The Post’s Afghanistan Papers project showed, U.S. officials misled the public with rosy versions of events on the ground.

Yet Cheney and other voices who swore by this failed approach tell us that we just need to stay a little longer, that a mission with no consistent definition of victory, no record of success and no public support is nevertheless vital to sustain. These voices will argue — indeed, they have argued for the better part of the past 20 years — that leaving Afghanistan is a failure of will. But history is littered with occupations that turned into quagmires that turned into disasters. Afghanistan alone has been the doom of the British, Soviet and now American empires.

Those interventionist politicians and establishment voices will also point to the very real dangers posed by the Taliban’s success. The country may once again become a haven for terrorists, they’ll argue. They’ll point to the rising standard of living, and the growth in education and human rights for Afghan women. They’ll ask how can we leave millions of Afghans, especially women, in danger.

Yet those dangers exist because, despite 20 years, billions of dollars, and 45,000 members of the Afghan military and police forces dead, along with more than 2,300 U.S. service members killed, the Afghan government, the United States and their allies never could create a stable, functioning state. And it has been clear for some time that such a task is impossible. Whatever the interventionists will argue, two decades of “nation-building” and counterinsurgency have been defined by corruption, incompetence and self-delusion. As we have seen in recent days, confronting that truth was always going to be ugly. But that doesn’t make it any less true.