Bitter Exit from Afghanistan

The debacle of institutions in the wake of the Taliban’s advance is a failure that will haunt the West.

The images of hundreds of people storming the runway at Kabul airport as military planes try to make their way out of the country will haunt the U.S. military for a long time to come and will mark much of Joe Biden’s presidency. These are scenes of desperation, moments the world will not forget. Comparisons with the flight from Saigon in 1975, after the failure of Vietnam, are outdated. The chaotic flight from Kabul these days, after the debacle of a state supposedly built over two decades, as of now has its own place in the history of U.S. military humiliation.

“[T]he likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” Biden said on July 8. Although one can sense the need to sell the withdrawal politically, his words will haunt him forever. On Sunday, after only a month of its offensive, the Taliban were giving a speech from the office of fugitive President Ashraf Ghani, having taken Kabul in a matter of hours. Afghanistan’s institutions were an empty shell. In a message to the nation, Biden called the images “painful” and “gut-wrenching.”

It is opportunistic to criticize, in retrospect, the withdrawal itself. While the decision was underpinned by the melancholy of futile effort, Biden took upon himself a responsibility that has eluded three presidents, to take on a decision that had been widely agreed upon for years. The military leadership had proposed maintaining a small force in the country, but Biden rejected it; he wanted the end to be definitive. What is not so clear is that the White House would have foreseen the current chaotic scenario. In fact, it has had to send in new troops to protect the departing ones. That is where more clarity should be demanded of the United States. Biden covertly blamed the Afghan government’s promise to stand up to the Taliban. At best, this is an incomprehensible miscalculation for an army that has been on the ground for 20 years. Something has not gone as planned and it is up to the U.S. to explain what and why. The chaos has not only put its soldiers in danger: Spain has had to improvise within hours a repatriation of 500 people. The debate has already erupted in Washington. The Republicans, after a period of distracted silence (the pact of peaceful coexistence with the Taliban was signed by Donald Trump in 2020 and sold as the key to withdrawal) have already begun to level accusations of incompetence.

But any political analysis pales in the face of the situation that develops for Afghans who do not get on those planes, especially women. What is urgent is to articulate the operational and logistical arrangements to take care of those who suffer from the violence if the Taliban end this period of grace in which their priority is apparently to maintain order without revenge. It has been at least a week since the direction of events became clear. Concrete aid commitments from the European Union and the U.S. are urgently needed.

Complete withdrawal from Afghanistan was always a high-stakes gambit in which the United States staked its international prestige as a military partner. The Afghans were gambling with their lives. Both are now at the mercy of the magnanimity of a band of fanatics.

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