It’s time to own our mistakes and look to the future in Afghanistan
After the failure of a U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba by exiles seeking to overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro in 1961, President Kennedy said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Kennedy acknowledged paternity: “I am the responsible officer of the government.”
The collapse of Afghanistan’s government Aug. 15 was a worse disaster. It had hundreds of fathers and some mothers as well, in both political parties.
Let’s be honest: All four American presidents who presided over the Afghanistan War — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden — share responsibility for the fall of the government.
Once again, the nearly 40 million people of Afghanistan are ruled by the Taliban — brutal terrorists who have little respect for the human rights of men and no respect for human rights of women and girls.
To their credit, American forces succeeded in ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan after their al Qaeda allies staged the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. We then succeeded in killing 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden during President Obama’s administration. But the Taliban kept fighting.
Also to the credit of our troops, the Biden administration and our allies, we succeeded in airlifting at least 122,000 people from the Afghan capital of Kabul since July, including about 5,400 Americans. Tragically, 13 members of the U.S. military and more than 170 civilians at the Kabul airport were killed in a suicide bombing Thursday in the final stages of the evacuation.
After U.S. troops completed their withdrawal Monday and ended our involvement in the war, it’s uncertain what will happen to the estimated 100 to 200 Americans in the country still wanting to leave. It’s even more uncertain what will happen to tens of thousands Afghans who worked with the U.S. and to their families who remain trapped in Afghanistan. Many of these Afghans fear the Taliban will kill them.
Republican and Democratic administrations generously funded the creation of an Afghan military that was deeply flawed, plagued by corruption and never trained by the U.S. to be self-sufficient. The Afghans were dependent on thousands of U.S. contractor employees to maintain their planes, helicopters and other equipment. The Afghan forces also relied on U.S. military advisers, along with bombers and drones to provide air cover and reconnaissance. President Biden didn’t have time to undo this fatal lack of preparation.
Once President Trump agreed to withdraw U.S. forces by May 1, the 17,000 contractors began leaving as well. U.S. troop strength dropped from a peak of 98,000 under President Obama to 13,000 when President Trump took office and to 2,500 when Trump left office.
What should have been done in addition to preparing the Afghan military to fight without U.S. contractors and other support?
Trump should have negotiated a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that was more unequivocally based on conditions the Taliban had to meet, such as power-sharing with the Afghan government and granting women basic human rights, rather than agreeing to withdraw all U.S. forces without clearly enforced conditions. And he should have started evacuating Afghans who worked for American forces at least a year ago.
Biden postponed the full withdrawal of U.S. forces to Aug. 31. In hindsight, he shouldn’t have felt bound to the awful deal Trump negotiated with the Taliban and should have demanded Taliban concessions before a full U.S. withdrawal. And if he was determined to withdraw U.S. forces and the Afghans who helped us, he should have started the evacuation of the Afghans within weeks of taking office.
Still, in fairness, few predicted the Afghan armed forces, supposedly 300,000 strong, would melt in just 11 days like a stick of butter on a hot skillet when the Taliban showed up to challenge them. This was an intelligence and policy failure of monumental proportions.
Looking back now, we can understand what happened. Feeling abandoned by their American allies and unable to quickly replace American troops and contractors, many members of the Afghan armed forces decided to withdraw from the war as well. As the old saying goes, no one wants to be the last soldier to die in a lost war.
Where should we go from here, now that our troops and contractors have left?
Afghanistan’s toppled government counted on foreign aid for 80 percent of its budget. The Taliban will need at least some of that aid to run the country. America and other nations must unite in withholding aid and recognition of the Taliban government unless it allows Afghans who the U.S. and other countries want to admit to leave their country.
We should also demand that the Taliban greatly improve their treatment of women and girls, and ensure that Afghanistan does not become a base for international terrorism.
Our nation-building efforts couldn’t turn Afghanistan into a Little America. But we shouldn’t turn our backs on the people of that country or let it once again become the launching pad for an attack on our homeland.
Donna Brazile is a political strategist, a contributor to ABC News and former chair of the Democratic National Committee. She is the author of “Hacks: Inside the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.”