It feels the equivalent of two life times ago since I saw the movie in 1955, To Hell and Back, that starred Audie Murphy who played himself in the film. Mr. Murphy represented the personification of the Greatest Generation, those that lived through the Great Depression and fought bravely in WWII. Perhaps the lyrics in Paul Simon’s song, Mrs. Robinson asking: “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” need a new rendition to: Where have you gone Audie Murphy? Let me be clear, I am not saying that those Americans who have served in Afghan, some of whom died, are not heroes. But unlike Audie Murphy and the Greatest Generation, they have fought in a losing battle much like their predecessors in Viet Nam.
America is witnessing the end of a twenty-year debacle in Afghanistan. Kimberly Nutley, an international human rights attorney, who has worked on Afghanistan for 13 years, said this is a “human rights nightmare” comparing it to “Saigon on steroids.” The quintessential error in American policy came on July 8 of this year when President Biden stated: “The likelihood of the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is unlikely.” There is some evidence that there were classified assessments of American spy agencies that warned of a potential collapse of the Afghan military. But Biden apparently was blinded by the message he wanted to hear: That now is as good a time as any to end the war. Unfortunately, as I write these words, the world knows better. Within six weeks of Mr. Biden’s declaration, the Taliban swooped down on Afghan, like vultures, and within 10 days overran the country, victorious at Kabul, and seized all of the Afghan weapons that America had supplied to our Afghan allies.
This is not to say that President Biden was alone in the poor decision-making America displayed in Afghanistan. The war started when former President, George W. Bush, ordered the attack on Afghanistan in reaction to Al Qaeda’s two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Mr. Bush was influenced by neo-conservatives who thought it best for American to export its democratic ways to Afghanistan in an effort at nation building. Although this may have been a worthy ideal ending, American leaders underestimated the enormous obstacles in achieving such a task with a country that had no history of a democracy. Duane Evans, who served in Afghanistan and wrote about his experiences there, believed the effort of nation building went awry when America went into Iraq in 2003. He has pointed out that the focus became Iraq, and not Afghanistan, which radically altered the U.S. policy of nation building in Afghanistan.
To his credit, Mr. Biden reversed many of former President Trump’s foreign policies, such as reactivating America’s participation in the World Health Organization (WHO) and in the Paris Climate Accords. But rather than overturning Trump’s policy of ending the war in Afghanistan and withdrawing our troops, the President went against the advice he received from his military generals in deciding to exit the war in early May. These military advisors argued there had been no American casualties for 18 months. General David Petraeus, the retired army general, who served in Afghanistan, maintained that the cost of keeping 3500 troops in Afghanistan to hold the line would have been minimal. The sad irony to all of this is that by underestimating the Taliban power and not planning an organized evacuation, there has been mass chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Disaster fell when 13 American troops and scores of Afghanistan people were killed by a suicide bomber who was a member of the ISIS-K, another terrorist group.
The late Secretary of State, George Schulz made the following observation: “Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.” When Mr. Trump allowed 5000 Taliban prisoners to be freed in his efforts to begin the end of American involvement in Afghanistan, he was hardly bargaining from a position of power. These prisoners, now freed, could have assisted the Taliban in the rapid defeat of the Afghan military with the final blow in Kabul.
In the end, as Gerald Seib put it, the odyssey was bipartisan with the retreat widely supported by the public. America has left troops in South Korea, Japan and Europe for years. The question on the minds of many political strategists was why not leave some troops in Afghanistan to serve as a buffer for the Afghan forces. Unfortunately, President Biden allowed himself to be moved by public opinion with little insight into the consequences of his actions. The American presence in Afghanistan had opened the doors for women to become educated and gainfully employed. Because the Taliban has historically ruled by Sharia law whereby women have few, if any rights, and are not permitted an education, these doors may soon be closing.
The Taliban, a terrorist organization, now supposedly assisting America in the evacuation process, has made it clear to America that it will not extend the deadline of August 31. The final straw is that President Biden refuses to ask the Taliban for an extension of the August 31st evacuation of all troops. This deadline will more than likely render it impossible for many of the Afghans, who were critical in aiding Americans, to gain safe passage to the United States. As Walter Russell Mead has said, the fall of Afghanistan will result in both our allies and our enemies believing that America cannot develop and stick to policies that work. Robin Wright, writer from the New Yorker, speculated whether the retreat from Afghanistan will mark the end of the American era. Audie Murphy was a hero who was a part of an America that was viewed by the world far differently than now. As Mead put it, since 9/11 our country has faced a continuous and accelerating drift and decline.
Globalization has caused the world to shrink. I believe the world needs America, and I would not count us out of the picture. In the past, when hit with calamity, America has had a history of reinventing itself. Let us hope that we will learn from this last disaster in foreign affairs to conduct future international interventions in a new and more productive manner.