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Opinion What’s happening in Afghanistan is horrible. But how else was U.S. involvement going to end?

Evacuees in Afghanistan await to board a U.S. Air Force C-17 at the Kabul international airport on Aug. 21. (Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via AP)

How, exactly, did the Biden administration’s critics think U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was ever going to end?

“Certainly not like this” is not a valid answer, however tragic Thursday’s attacks near the Kabul airport prove to be. Please be specific. Did you envision a formal ceremony at the U.S. Embassy with the American flag being lowered and the Taliban flag raised? Did you see the Taliban waiting patiently while the U.S.-trained Afghan army escorted U.S. citizens, other NATO nationals and our Afghan collaborators to the airport for evacuation? Did you imagine that the country’s branch of the Islamic State would watch peacefully from the sidelines, or that regional warlords would renounce any hope of regaining their power, or that a nation with a centuries-old tradition of rejecting central authority would suddenly embrace it?

This is not an apologia for the tragic and chaotic scenes that have been unfolding in Kabul. Rather, it is a reality check. If there is a graceful, orderly way to abandon involvement in a brutal, unresolved civil war on the other side of the world, please cite historical precedents. I can’t find them.

One legitimate answer to this question is our involvement shouldn’t have ended: that the United States should have kept several thousand troops in Afghanistan. Like President Biden, and like Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump before him, I disagree with that view. But I do see some logic in the position that maintaining the status quo — basically, propping up the Afghan government we installed — would have been better than the Taliban takeover we’ve just witnessed.

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The problem is that this “forever war” truly would have had to continue forever. We were never going to outlast the Taliban because — and this is an important point — its members live there and want to govern the country. Afghanistan is their country, not ours. The nation’s fate was never going to matter more to us than it does them, however repulsive we may find their vision for it. Nor was Afghanistan ever going to matter more to us than it does to the military establishment in neighboring Pakistan, which sees its support of the Taliban as a strategic imperative. Sooner or later, we were going to come home.

And if we were going to leave eventually, what would have been different if we had waited another year, or another five, or another 10? We’d have spent a lot more money and sacrificed more American lives, but Afghanistan would still be Afghanistan.

The rapid disintegration of the 300,000-strong Afghan army showed how little we really understood about the country, even after 20 years. U.S. officials thought government forces could hold out against the Taliban at least for months, perhaps as long as a year. Instead, the military and police we sponsored, equipped and trained surrendered much of the country without even putting up a fight.

Should we have begun airlifting Afghan translators and others who helped the allied effort out of the country earlier, perhaps using the now-abandoned air base at Bagram as the departure gate? Maybe so, but such an evacuation might have created a panic — “The Americans are leaving!” — and a target both of the Taliban and ISIS. However we tried to leave, I believe, things were going to be bad.

The administration began warning Americans to leave the country months ago. Of the roughly 6,000 who ignored those warnings and remained, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, some 4,500 have been evacuated and plans were being made to extract another 500. That leaves an estimated 1,000 American citizens believed to still be in the country — and Blinken has said it is not clear whether all those people are actually citizens or that all of them wish to leave.

Meanwhile, we and our partners have already evacuated more than 100,000 Afghans and others who feared for their lives under Taliban rule, a truly remarkable logistical achievement under daunting circumstances. We owe a great debt to these people and we should continue the airlift as long as we can. But that won’t be forever, as conditions deteriorate — witness the deadly bombings on Thursday outside Hamid Karzai International Airport — and not everyone who desperately wants to get out will be able to do so. That is tragic. But it would be true, I believe, whenever and however the U.S. mission ended.

The images we’re seeing from Kabul are shocking, heartbreaking and embarrassing. But the real stain on our national honor was in making promises to Afghans that we never had the intention or even the ability to keep. Twenty years of U.S. blood and treasure gave Afghanistan not a secular democracy but its flickering illusion. And history will see this withdrawal, painful as it is to watch, not as ignominious but as inevitable.