I suppose this was inevitable. When I woke up this morning it was still dark outside. After making coffee, I opened up my news feed and flipped on the tv to catch up with the overnight news. What greeted me was a series of scenes of smiling Taliban fighters posing for the cameras on the tarmac of the Kabul airport. They preened as one of their spokespeople (because it’s 2021 and terrorist groups have media spokesmen now) announced that they had finally “defeated America” and that Afghanistan is now “free.”
I immediately felt ill. Taliban fighters in abandoned vehicles were racing up and down the runway like teenagers who discover that their dad left a spare set of car keys in the house when he went away on business. Meanwhile, as the Associated Press pointed out, throngs of hopeless people wandered away from the airport, realizing that nobody was coming to save them. So the war is over and it ended as horribly as you probably expected.
Taliban leaders later symbolically walked across the runway, marking their victory while flanked by fighters of the insurgents’ elite Badri unit.
“The world should have learned its lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream posted by a militant.
Later speaking to Al-Jazeera Arabic on the airport’s tarmac, Mujahid rejected having a caretaker government and insisted that Kabul remained safe.
“There will be security in Kabul and people should not be concerned,” he said.
So is the Taliban justified in declaring “victory” over the United States? As sick as it makes me feel to say it, it’s kind of hard to argue with them. When we first went in back in October of 2001, we effectively broke the back of the Taliban in a matter of days. We scattered al Qaeda to the winds and we eventually killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. If we had turned around and simply left after his body was dumped in the ocean, we could have declared victory because the original job had been accomplished.
But somewhere along the line, we decided we were going to rebuild Afghanistan in our own image. And the Taliban never really left. They just moved underground and kept fighting us and the Afghan army and government that we set up there. Allowing that condition to continue for another decade meant that we were still involved in a war. And in warfare, when one side packs up and flees, they’ve conceded defeat. So yes… I suppose we “lost.” And it’s not a good feeling.
But that doesn’t mean that the story is over. As even the AP is willing to admit, Joe Biden and his administration have a lot of questions to answer. And those answers will likely have to be delivered during congressional hearings over precisely how the troop withdrawal went so disastrously wrong. There will also be more work to be done in identifying any Americans that were left behind and getting them out, along with the thousands of Afghan helpers who are stranded there, assuming the Taliban hasn’t executed them all by then.
The war may be over, but Biden’s Afghanistan problem is not.
The president still faces daunting challenges born of the hasty end of the war, including how to help extract as many as 200 Americans and thousands of Afghans left behind, the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees who were able to flee, and coming congressional scrutiny over how, despite increasingly fraught warnings, the administration was caught flat-footed by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
Through the withdrawal, Biden showed himself willing to endure what his advisers hope will be short-term pain for resisting bipartisan and international pressure to extend his Aug. 31 deadline for ending the American military evacuation effort.
Someone has to be held accountable for how badly the evacuation went and there’s really only one name on the list. It’s always easy to say that the Captain is at fault when his ship hits an iceberg, even if he was asleep in his stateroom at the time. But that wasn’t the situation here. Joe Biden was being warned for months that neither the government in Kabul nor our embassy would survive long once the troop withdrawal began. But he stubbornly insisted the opposite, preparing for long-term operations inside the Green Zone and some form of “transitional” government. It was that lack of foresight and flawed assumptions that led to the chaos we watched unfold in Afghanistan.
You don’t get to simply issue a mea culpa and go on your merry way after something like this. There are thirteen new Gold Star families and thousands of grieving, stranded Afghan helpers who are going to be looking for answers. They deserve to receive them. And Congress needs to at least temporarily take off its partisan blinders and make sure they get them.