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The Anguish Over What America Left Behind—and Afghanistan’s Future

America’s longest war ended at 3:29 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time—a minute before midnight Afghan time—on August 30th. Five lumbering C-17s flew the last U.S. troops out of Kabul’s international airport. It was the last tiny corner of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, that had been held by the world’s mightiest power after twenty years of war, a trillion dollars, and the deaths of almost a quarter million people on all sides. It seemed a wretched end. The Pentagon tweeted a grainy late-night photo of Major General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne, as he became the last American soldier to step off Afghan soil. A U.S. official who spent the final days in Kabul told me that, in the end, there was a consensus among the exhausted American military personnel and envoys that they just wanted out, even as they questioned the frantic chaos of how it was done. Among people who risked their lives to fulfill the ever-evolving directives, there was a final sorrow that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan would never have worked, whatever the commitment by one of the largest military coalitions ever assembled. “How were we going to fix it?” the official said. “It was time to cut our losses. People out there said, ‘We need to go—but not like this.’ The problem,” he added, “was that no one knew what better looked like.”

The haunting debris at the airport—piles of trash from the sea of evacuees, military helicopters and armored vehicles decommissioned to prevent use by the Taliban, and a circle of lonely poles without flags from the nations that once supported Afghanistan—symbolized the vacuum left behind. Afghanistan still had no new government, with the well-armed Taliban militia roaming the streets. It was a far cry from what Americans had envisioned after the anguish of the 9/11 attacks. In announcing Operation Enduring Freedom, in 2001, President George W. Bush outlined a powerful U.S. response. He had given the Taliban an ultimatum—to close terrorist training camps, hand over the leaders of Al Qaeda, and release all detained foreign nationals, including Americans. “None of these demands were met,” he told the nation. “And now the Taliban will pay a price.” American generosity would provide food, medicine, and supplies to relieve Afghanistan’s “starving and suffering” people. “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.” Only, America did tire. It did falter. And it did fail. Bold promises, over time, turned into mission abandonment. The hope of personal freedom has evaporated into the tyranny of extremist rule.

On Tuesday, just days short of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, Joe Biden became the fourth American President to try to justify a change in the course of U.S. strategy, which had been fraught from the beginning with epic policy miscalculations and a colossal failure to understand Afghanistan. “The choice was either to leave or to escalate, which would have required the deployment of more U.S. forces,” Biden said, in one of the most forceful speeches of his Presidency. “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.” Eight hundred thousand Americans have served in Afghanistan over two decades, he said. Yet, by the time he took office, the Taliban was in the strongest position it had been in since 2001; it controlled half the country. “It was time to be honest with the American people. We no longer had a clear purpose” for an open-ended mission in Afghanistan, he said. “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”

The reality of America’s exit—its mission unaccomplished in multiple ways—would have been unimaginable when Bush spoke two decades ago. As the last C-17 departed on Monday night, Taliban fighters around Kabul airfield shot bursts of celebratory gunfire into the air. “The last U.S. soldier has left Kabul airport,” Qari Yusuf, a Taliban spokesman, boasted, “and our country gained complete independence.” Al Qaeda was not only back—its better-trained fighters were the force multipliers in the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan. Somewhere around two hundred Americans were left behind. Among them was Mark Frerichs, a civil engineer who had worked in Afghanistan for a decade before he was taken hostage by a Taliban faction last year. For all the bartering between them over the past two weeks, U.S. officials couldn’t persuade the Taliban to let him go. Also stranded were tens of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives working alongside U.S. diplomats, the military, and other American agencies over twenty years. They’d been promised help getting out. “There’s a lot of heartbreak,” General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., conceded candidly, in announcing the end of the U.S. mission. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.” Hours later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that “a new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy.” But that seemed yet another delusion in a long sequence of self-deceptions about U.S. policy on Afghanistan.

With the end of the “forever war,” there are now new layers of anguish—about what was not realized, about both so much and so little of what was left behind, about the irretrievable lives lost over two decades—for what? After the traumatic final days, many people involved in Afghanistan struggled to process the aftermath. Ryan Crocker, a former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, gave me a checklist of what America abandoned—most of all, “a whole lot of souls,” including local allies, aspiring women and girls, young activists, as well as “our reputation as a reliable ally that will live up to its commitments.” The U.S. left behind a struggling democracy, he said. “For all its failings—and there were many, for which we bear responsibility as well, like the cash-fuelled corruption—it was nonetheless a system of government that aspired to better things. That is now gone. We left behind a free media.” On Sunday, the BBC correspondent Yalda Hakim, who was born in Kabul, tweeted a video of eight Taliban gunmen, each cradling an automatic rifle, standing behind a news anchor on Afghan television as he reported that the Afghan people should not fear the new Islamic Emirate.

The U.S. also left behind a long-term threat potentially as great as 9/11—if not even greater. “We left behind the gift—to them—of a much reinforced and revived Islamic militancy. We left behind a restored Al Qaeda-Taliban axis that brought us 9/11,” Crocker said. “That is a gift for which our children and grandchildren will pay. Unlike Vietnam, what happens in Afghanistan in the currency of Islamic jihad doesn’t stay in Afghanistan.”

For the U.S., the forever war is over, but American military missions are not. The Biden Administration has vowed to continue operations—starting yet another cycle of conflict—against ISIS-Khorasan. As with the U.S. intervention after the 9/11 attacks, this mission is again about revenge, this time for the deaths of thirteen young military personnel killed by a suicide bomber at the Kabul airport four days before the final withdrawal. “To ISIS-K, we are not done with you yet,” Biden vowed. “To those who wish us harm, know this: the United States will never rest. We will track you down to the ends of the earth, and we will make you pay the ultimate price.” The U.S. strategy is now “over the horizon,” meaning drone, missile, or air strikes, possibly even Special Ops missions, from afar—which carry their own dangers. The final use of American air power before the pullout was a drone strike on a suspected car bomb in Kabul. The strike reportedly killed ten civilians, including seven children and a former Afghan Army officer who had applied for a visa to the U.S.

The Taliban will face its own political and military challenges, Doug Lute, a former ambassador to NATO who oversaw Afghanistan policy in the Bush and Obama Administrations, predicted. The Taliban’s final campaign to take control of the country may prove to have been the easier challenge. After President Donald Trump took office and vowed to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban told tribal leaders and local governments to make a choice—ally with them or stick with a corrupt central government that would soon no longer have U.S. protection. “We admitted for some time that there was going to be a political outcome to this war,” Lute told me. “We had a mental picture that it would happen behind closed doors in a conference room in Doha. At the end of the day, it was a political outcome, just not the one that we wanted. We were blind to how it might be at a micro, grassroots level, not at the macro level” led by the United States.

Yet the Taliban now has to deliver services to nearly forty million people, run an economy without the foreign funding that provided seventy-five per cent of its income, deal with a pandemic in a largely unvaccinated country, and figure out how to produce enough food amid a drought and reduced harvest. Meanwhile, it, too, faces dangers from ISIS-K, which has at least two thousand hardened fighters and is now more of a threat to the Taliban than the U.S. is. The biggest challenge for the Taliban, which is made up of factions with disparate views and tactics, may be to remain coherent and cohesive, Lute said. Its two pillars of legitimacy—that it was waging a jihad against foreign occupiers and that it was the resistance against a puppet government—have disappeared. “What keeps them glued together?” Lute asked. “They face daunting tasks that would be challenging even for an established government.”

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