Tuesday, August 31, 2021

End of an Era

 Yesterday, the last US military plane with the last load of military members and Afghan civilians left Kabul.  Our mission there is officially done after 20 years.  So why am I so down?  I think it's because leaving was the right thing to do, but it was done in the worst possible way.

As I stated in a previous posting, we were propping up a government that was doomed to fail no matter what we did.  The Afghan government was a kleptocracy that did not have much support from its people, who were ambivalent about it at best.  Despite all the assistance, training, and funding that we and the international community provided, we couldn't get it to do the right thing.  

Individual people, both within and outside the government, were wonderful.  Brave women stood up to advance the cause of women.  The Afghan Army and police forces took unbelievable losses in their fight against the Taliban and individual soldiers were as brave and effective as any US soldier.  I saw that myself in Kandahar.  There were people inside the government doing their best to do what was right: provide services, root out corruption, and make Afghanistan a better place.  Local leaders, despite being uneducated, could negotiate contracts as well as any Fortune 500 executive.  

But there was no leadership glue to hold the country together.  The Taliban, however, had a mission and thousands of loyal adherents. After Trump signed the withdrawal agreement, it was only a matter of time.  Everybody knew it.  The speed of the government's collapse, though, took everybody by surprise.  In my last post on this topic, the "experts" were thinking it would take 90 days.  I said it would be less than 30.  In reality, it was about 48 hours.  

The US military response was truly amazing.  From nothing, our military created a humanitarian airlift that pulled over 123,000 people out of the country in just over two weeks.  It was ugly in the beginning, but our troops quickly stood up an efficient, effective, multi-national effort.  

Parts of the State Department did a fantastic job as well.  All those Afghan evacuees had to go somewhere, and the State Department found nations in the region and elsewhere that agreed to take them.  That's not a small accomplishment.  

Other parts of this story are really ugly.  The ISIS-K attack on the airport that killed 13 of our troops and 170 Afghans, as well as wounding over 200 more, was the low point.  Another low point is the State Department's handling of the Special Immigrant Visas for those Afghans who worked with us over the past 20 years.  As I've said for years, the State Department never wanted to do SIVs and slow-rolled them from the outset.  The rationale was that rewarding capable Afghans for their service by bringing them out of Afghanistan undermined the mission.  Essentially, we were showing that we had no faith that the Afghan government would succeed.  I understand that rationale, but don't like it.  And by continuing to slow-roll visa processing even after Trump signed the withdrawal agreement, the State Department consular service left thousands of people to fend for themselves.  I'd like to take the whole State Department Consular Service, dump them in Kandahar, and let them find their own way home.

Today there's a photo making the rounds on Facebook of a bunch of military working dogs who were left in their cages at the Kabul airport.  Leaving our dogs in the airport is horrifying.  But I wouldn't want to be the individual who had to make that decision.  You've got one last plane, so do you take a bunch of Afghan women and children, or dogs?  There's no room for both.  It's a bad decision, either way.

So now we're out.  The Taliban has what they wanted: control of the country.  Now it's their turn to run it.  I don't think the Taliban will be quite as brutal as before.  Afghanistan is a "Go Fund Me" country that survives on international donations, which will be hard to come by if they don't pay at least some attention to international norms.  Well, that's the hope, anyway.  The Taliban will do what they damn well please.  And one of the things they'll have to deal with is ISIS-K.  Good luck with that.

Was it worth it?  Was it worth 20 years, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars?  Damned if I know.

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