The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghanistan’s rapid collapse is part of a long, slow U.S. defeat


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The collapse seems so sudden. In the space of a few blistering summer months, Taliban forces have swept across much of Afghanistan.

One after the other, provincial centers across the country’s north and west are being captured by the insurgents as government resistance melts away. When the militants on Thursday seized the city of Ghazni, it was the 10th provincial capital to fall in a week. Then, in what would be a stunning blow to the beleaguered government of President Ashraf Ghani, Taliban forces appeared to take over the major cities of Herat and Kandahar, as well as Lashkar Gah, capital of southern Helmand province, according to my colleagues.

Now, with Kabul in its crosshairs, the Taliban finds itself in arguably its most powerful position since 2001, before it was ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion. Reports are already coming in from areas under Taliban control of militants carrying out attacks on civilians and forcing young women into marriages. Meanwhile, the Afghan military — built through years of U.S. training and significant financial support — is reeling and demoralized. In city after city, soldiers surrendered or deserted their posts. In some instances, the Taliban drove off with U.S. military equipment, including weapons and vehicles.

U.S. officials reportedly contemplated relocating their embassy closer to the airport and urged American citizens in the country to leave immediately. Thousands of additional U.S. troops will be temporarily dispatched to secure staff for a potential evacuation. The Biden administration is desperately trying to rally disparate regional actors, from Afghanistan’s neighbors to the European Union to Russia and China, to present a united diplomatic front amid talks with Taliban envoys in Qatar. But the militants’ leverage is only growing as the echoes of Saigon 1975 ring all the louder in Kabul 2021.

According to U.S. intelligence assessments, the rapid disintegration of the Afghan security forces means a possible Taliban capture of Kabul itself could be a matter of months, perhaps even weeks. The success of the Taliban offensive has coincided with the withdrawal of the last remaining detachments of U.S. and NATO troops in the country, announced by President Biden this year. The White House had initially timed the pullout to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, which were plotted by al-Qaeda militants given sanctuary by Afghanistan’s then-Taliban government.

Mass Afghan government surrenders as Taliban fighters overrun three key cities in sweeping territorial gains

With the Taliban once more ascendant, Biden presides over a grim symmetry. In early July, the president scoffed at the possibility of the Taliban “overrunning everything” and pinned his hopes on a mediated political settlement between Afghanistan’s warring parties. More hawkish critics argued that the United States needed to maintain a deterrent threat against the resurgent Taliban. Their opponents countered that the enduring instability in the country even after two decades of U.S. occupation was evidence enough of a mission that needed to end. For weeks, the White House has defended its decision to wind down the U.S. troop presence — a goal also pursued by former president Donald Trump and supported by a majority of Americans, according to recent polling — as a necessary move whose time has come.

“Look, we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years,” Biden told reporters recently at the White House, “We trained and equipped, with modern equipment, over 300,000 Afghan forces. And Afghan leaders have to come together.”

It’s possible that the relatively small numbers of foreign forces left in the country could have done little to thwart the Taliban’s current advance, regardless of the declared withdrawal. For Biden, the country’s predicament was the source of mounting impatience. But for countless Afghans, including a burgeoning population of internally displaced people, the situation has become all the more hopeless.

The hurried evacuations of Western diplomats from the Afghan capital accentuated the sense of crisis. “The international community should absolutely prioritize the security of its diplomats,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Wilson Center, to my colleagues. “But let’s be clear: Its departure from Afghanistan would send a sobering signal that the world is resigned to leaving Afghans to their fate.”

"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)

But the writing has been on the wall for a long time. As my colleague Craig Whitlock has revealed with his award-winning reporting on a cache of internal U.S. government documents scrutinizing the failures of the American war-making and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, successive U.S. administrations recognized that the Taliban were not going to be easily vanquished, that the Afghan state was weak and riddled with corruption, and that muddling through without a coherent strategy was still preferable to admitting defeat.

“The interviews and documents, many of them previously unpublished, show how the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump hid the truth for two decades,” Whitlock explained. “They were slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly supported. Instead, political and military leaders chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift.”

Less than half a decade after the invasion, Bush administration officials were invoking analogies to the Vietnam War, as it became clear that the Taliban still posed a threat. “The turning point came at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006 when we finally woke up to the fact that there was an insurgency that could actually make us fail,” one administration official later told government interviewers. “Everything was turning the wrong way at the end of 2005.”

Yet, wrote Whitlock, “the Bush administration suppressed the internal warnings and put a shine on the war.”

Almost a decade later, at the end of 2014, Obama attempted to hail the end of the American military mission in the country after years of counterinsurgency, declaring in a statement that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” But U.S. officials knew that there was little end in sight and the Obama administration, Whitlock reported, “conjured up an illusion.” It communicated to Americans that U.S. forces were only remaining in “noncombat” roles. “But the Pentagon carved out numerous exceptions that, in practice, made the distinctions almost meaningless,” wrote Whitlock.

Then came Trump, who loudly called for an end to costly U.S. military entanglements abroad. But he authorized an intensification of aerial bombing campaigns against Islamist militant targets that, according to one study, saw Afghan civilian casualties increase by about 330 percent.

Biden, a veteran of the Obama years, now owns his own moment in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, a tragedy many years in the making.

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