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Humiliating as it may be, leaving Afghanistan is still the right decision

President Biden will take a beating for following through on his decision to leave Afghanistan quickly.

Many of his harshest critics will be the same experts and legislators who applauded former presidents who promised the same thing. Others will mourn the loss of temporary advances in human rights, especially for women and girls. But the most passionate outcries likely will come from those of us now abandoning former friends and colleagues to a harsh future, Afghans who worked with us and wanted us to believe our decades-long effort might not be wasted, after all.

Most of those criticisms will be misplaced. Our miscalculation in Afghanistan was destined to end like this. We accomplished our original goal of denying terrorists a stable operating base early in the campaign and then decided to build a progressive democracy on a medieval foundation. Hubris predictably led to humiliation.

Biden deserves credit for facing the facts and doing the right thing. His recent predecessors either were dissuaded from taking the same step by egregiously wrong military and foreign policy advice or else blanched at being labeled the president who lost a war. Biden will take the hit, but the simple truth is that we have not so much abandoned Afghanistan as Afghanistan has abandoned us, or more precisely, never joined us in the first place.

Most observers are surprised at the speed of the Taliban’s victory. Why? The Afghan military, ineptly and corruptly led, never stood a chance on its own against a more committed, strategically focused enemy. The army’s rapid collapse might have been shocking, like watching the inevitable finally happen after a long wait, but it had been pre-ordained for years.

Assurances that the Afghan military was improving, a claim we heard and should have challenged for more than a decade, were based on metrics that failed to adequately account for its dismal leadership, both civilian and military. The was also an absence of national purpose and identity among its troops. Those deficits never improved at the organizational level.

Diplomatic efforts to build functioning institutions met and failed to surmount the same challenges. Afghans never coalesced around our alien agenda — a frustration felt by most participants in the conflict. Our answer was to measure form as if it were substance and call it progress. As shocking as the final moment feels, it is not a surprise.

One clear indication we are not really astonished at the scope and speed of the Taliban victory is our initial focus on individual loss rather than strategic setback. We suffered a guilty conscience, not a debilitating reversal.

Some experts will sound the alarm about damaged American credibility and the theoretical consequences of acquiescing to an Islamic terror organization (one that we initially helped sustain and that never posed a direct threat to the United States or its allies) but we had already resigned ourselves to the new reality. Afghanistan is not just the graveyard of empires. It is a desolate place on the map that generally is not worth the effort to co-opt.

Most of us who served there left some piece of our honor and integrity behind. Others left far more. Worse, many of our abandoned Afghan colleagues will suffer because of sloppy administration rather than the unavoidable vagaries of war. Humiliating does not begin to cover it.

But delaying our departure in the hope the Taliban will demur to our guilt is a bad idea. Strategic drawdown after strategic drawdown will only accumulate additional requirements and produce more mission creep. We have seen this play before and do not need an encore. Tragedy brought us into Afghanistan and tragedy will usher us out. That will not change with time.

What can and must change, however, is our delusional thinking about the omnipotence of American military solutions.

The folly is not just about mission creep and asking our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to do jobs for which they are ill-suited and inadequately prepared. It is about the assumptions and planning that shape those missions. Indicators that are meaningful to the logistical challenges of armed conflict are often irrelevant to subsequent stabilization and recovery. A better balance at the conference table will produce better outcomes in the field.

In the meantime, squeezing square pegs into round holes will continue to produce bad results — and that should come as no surprise.

Ambassador David Robinson (Ret.) is a former emissary to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Guyana. He was assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan in 2013-2014 and served as assistant secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations in the Obama administration. 

Tags 9/11 Afghanistan David Robinson Diplomacy Joe Biden Kabul Middle East Military National security Taliban

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