There is nothing much that can be done at this point to reverse the situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. can, and should, direct all the resources it can to evacuating as many of the Afghans who aided American forces over the past twenty years as possible, but that endeavor would entail options and a commitment to them that President Biden has demonstrated an unwillingness to embrace. Of course, one thing the President could do is refrain from making statements about the tragic situation which share the common denominator that it’s not his fault.
A few points on the sordid episode should be made, which won’t help the Afghans, but deserve comment nonetheless:
1.We should not retreat into the mindset that the last twenty years were all in vain. America’s strategic goals in Afghanistan, after the 9/11 attacks, were threefold: first, to locate and destroy those elements which planned, organized, and executed attacks on America; second, to remove the regime which was providing protection and safe harbor for the terrorist groups; and third, to create the environment where a new generation of Afghans would be exposed to the blessings and benefits of life in a more open, free, western-leaning society, so that as that generation matured they could assume the organization of their country in a way that would no longer foster a threat to the United States. This last was a long-term prospect, which remains about 10 years shy of completion, which makes the precipitous and suddenness of the abandonment all the more tragic.
2. That does not mean that all of the progress has been extinguished. Afghanistan is not what it was in August 2001. The seed planted by American involvement in the country will not be dug up overnight by the barbarians. A generation of Afghans are just coming of age who have known life free of the whips and hatchets of the Taliban, including a new generation of women who have received an education, and that spirit will not be easily extinguished.
3. This is not the Afghans' fault. It may be tempting for the president and others to make them the scapegoat, bemoaning their “lack of will” to resist the Taliban onslaught. Will to resist is an exaggerated factor – did the Polish, Dutch, and French lack a will to resist the Wehrmacht? It is less about will than about means and organization. If the U.S. had pulled its support for Great Britain in 1941, who doubts that London would be in Nazi hands by 1942? This is especially true in the face of an enemy with the ruthlessness and audacity as the Taliban, or the North Vietnamese Army, or Hitler’s SS. Afghans' will to resist would have stood under the aegis of American airpower and support, and the fact that that will crumbled when America pulled that support does not merit life under Hitler, which is the life toward which the Afghans now head.
4. Even if this does not mean an absolute reversion to pre-2001 Afghanistan, there are strategic and security consequences, both in that country and beyond, not the least of which is the projection of American weakness and incompetence. The disastrous bungling of this episode is a PR gift to China, which has taken full advantage -- official Chinese media has wasted no time taunting America and making ever more aggressive overtones towards Taiwan in the last few days. Now granted, strategically there is not a direct comparison between Afghanistan and Taiwan; Taiwan is an advanced, successful western-oriented democracy with a well established and effective government and a professional, well-trained and well-equipped military. But help from the U.S. will still be vital if China decides to flex its muscles across the Formosa Strait, and while a premature abandonment of Afghanistan does not necessarily adumbrate future abandonment of Taipei, it does raise questions, and the image of American fecklessness being projected makes tensions in the Strait more perilous than they need to be.
This raises serious questions in regards to American security relations with our NATO allies as well; for instance, if tens of billions of dollars of aid and a twenty year partnership with Afghanistan is no longer considered a worthy investment, how disposable is our commitment, some must wonder, to Poland, or Germany? Will the Biden administration allow itself to cave to political pressure to withdraw from the Article V commitment to protect NATO members from Russian aggression? Russia is certainly ready to manipulate the answer to that question.
5. In terms of the impacts on the U.S. there is a domestic component as well, which has not been talked about much. An entire generation of young American servicemen, mostly young men, but women too, went to that region of the world in defense of their country, and many saw their quality of life eroded by wounds, physical and mental. They are now watching what is happening and many are being pushed into a dark place, wondering if their sacrifice was worth it. It was; but geo-political analysis cannot provide the reassurance necessary to prevent an increase in the average of 22 suicides per day among veterans over the next year that many veterans’ groups are predicting.