The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We must own our complicity in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul on Aug. 18. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
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The United States’ shame over its precipitous sprint out of Afghanistan will shadow the country’s conscience for a generation. Every horror story — and they will keep coming — is partly the result of our decision to bug out. The death and destruction that occur in previously secure parts of the country will be on the bipartisan decision to exit.

The fiasco of the President Biden-ordered quick march out of the country — with its arbitrary deadline and false proclamations of a heroic airlift effort — will garner the most shame.

But Barack Obama and Donald Trump all wanted the same thing. They wanted out, too.

All three presidents lacked what Abraham Lincoln possessed and George W. Bush often displayed: the strength to shoulder the suffering of war brought home in dead and wounded young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The country tired of it, too. We do not have the ability to fight a long war, even with minimal casualties, because for us there is no such thing. We can station troops on borders. But we cannot endlessly endure the loss of American life to enemy combatants. So, we left.

But our greatest sin is to have left without first overseeing an exodus of those who were desperate to run from a barbaric theocracy. We did a portion of the saving at the last minute, and those tens of thousands who did escape will be forever grateful for the 11 Marines, one Navy corpsman and one Army soldier who gave their lives that those refugees might live. But for 20 years, we pretended that some sort of middle ground might emerge between darkest midnight and dawn of democracy. Turns out there wasn’t, and yet we owed an exit to those who relied on the false hope.

We are a nation of some 330 million. We are large enough, our allies numerous enough, that we could have saved hundreds of thousands more. We chose not to do so. Shame, shame on us.

We also told ourselves for years that Afghanistan was the “good war” (launched to fight al-Qaeda) and Iraq was the misguided one. It will turn out that the invasion of Iraq advanced peace and stability far more than in Afghanistan because it allowed a Sunni-Israel alliance to emerge against Iran’s Shiite theocrats. We have not been shrewd, but we could not allow the Islamic State to dominate the Middle East. Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 was precipitous and disastrous; it had to be reversed, and the result, while nothing compared with a Western democracy, is still a violent place but not without hope.

There is no hope in Afghanistan, though there is a near certainty of attacks against our interests emanating from there. An advanced safe haven for the planet’s most fanatic Sunni Islamist extremists is now next door to the home of the globe’s most fanatic Shiite Islamist extremists. My bet is that we will have to go back. But not before another horrific attack.

Singer-songwriter John Ondrasik has written a gut-punch song about the pullout, entitled “Blood on My Hands,” which takes aim at Secretary of State Antony Blinken, among others. Facebook briefly blocked a promoted post for the song, saying the post violated the platform’s advertising rules.

Imagine Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young not being able to promote “Ohio” because it slammed Richard M. Nixon. We cannot come to grips with what we have wrought by erasing those who were left behind. We cannot “move on” from our complicity.

The Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan — these terrorist groups will not take care to indulge our amnesia. The bodies will pile up. The horrific executions will leak out. That’s on Biden. What has happened, though, over 20 years? That is on all of us. We promised so much more. Afghans relied on so much more. Then we got tired and left. It is that simple.