History will surely note this absurdly ill-timed tweet. On Monday, August 9th, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul posed a question to its four hundred thousand followers: “This #PeaceMonday, we want to hear from you. What do you wish to tell the negotiating parties in Doha about your hopes for a political settlement? #PeaceForAfghanistan.” The message reflected the delusion of American policy. With the Taliban sweeping across the country, storming one provincial capital after another, the prospect that diplomacy would work a year after U.S.-backed talks in Qatar began—and quickly stalled—was illusory. By Thursday, the Afghan government controlled only three major cities. President Joe Biden, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, announced that he was dispatching three thousand U.S. troops to Afghanistan to pull hundreds of its diplomats and staff out of that Embassy. And, by Sunday, it was all over—before dusk. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, his government collapsed, and the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces simply melted away as the Taliban moved into the capital. American diplomats—having evacuated the fortress-like U.S. Embassy—were forced to shelter in place at the airport as they waited to be evacuated. America’s two-decade-long misadventure in Afghanistan has ended. For Americans, Afghanistan looks a little, maybe a lot, like a trillion-dollar throwaway. Meanwhile, Afghans are left in free fall.
It’s not just an epic defeat for the United States. The fall of Kabul may serve as a bookend for the era of U.S. global power. In the nineteen-forties, the United States launched the Great Rescue to help liberate Western Europe from the powerful Nazi war machine. It then used its vast land, sea, and air power to defeat the formidable Japanese empire in East Asia. Eighty years later, the U.S. is engaged in what historians may someday call a Great Retreat from a ragtag militia that has no air power or significant armor and artillery, in one of the poorest countries in the world.
It’s now part of an unnerving American pattern, dating back to the nineteen-seventies. On Sunday, social-media posts of side-by-side photos evoked painful memories. One captured a desperate crowd climbing up a ladder to the rooftop of a building near the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to get on one of the last helicopters out in 1975, during the Ford Administration. The other showed a Chinook helicopter hovering over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sunday. “This is manifestly not Saigon,” the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, tried to argue on Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week.” It didn’t wash. And there are other episodes. In 1984, the Reagan Administration withdrew the U.S. Marine peacekeepers from Beirut after a suicide bomber from a nascent cell of what became Hezbollah killed more than two hundred and forty military personnel—the largest loss for the Marines in a single incident since the Second World War. In 2011, the United States pulled out of Iraq, opening the way for the emergence of isis. The repeated miscalculations challenge basic Washington policy-making as well as U.S. military strategy and intelligence capabilities. Why wasn’t this looming calamity—or any of the earlier ones—anticipated? Or the exits better planned? Or the country not left in the hands of a former enemy? It is a dishonorable end.
Whatever the historic truth decades from now, the U.S. will be widely perceived by the world today as having lost what George W. Bush dubbed the “war on terror”—despite having mobilized Nato for its first deployment outside Europe or North America, a hundred and thirty-six countries to provide various types of military assistance, and twenty-three countries to host U.S. forces deployed in offensive operations. America’s vast tools and tactics proved ill-equipped to counter the will and endurance of the Taliban and their Pakistani backers. In the long term, its missiles and warplanes were unable to vanquish a movement of sixty thousand core fighters in a country about as big as Texas.
There are many repercussions that will endure long after the U.S. withdrawal. First, jihadism has won a key battle against democracy. The West believed that its armor and steel, backed by a generous infusion of aid, could defeat a hard-line ideology with a strong local following. The Taliban are likely, once again, to install Sharia as law of the land. Afghanistan will again, almost certainly, become a haven for like-minded militants, be they members of Al Qaeda or others in search of a haven or a sponsor. It’s a gloomy prospect as Americans prepare to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next month. Since 2001, Al Qaeda, isis, and other jihadi extremists have seeded franchises on all six inhabited continents. Last month, the United States sanctioned an isis branch as far afield as Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony in southern Africa where almost sixty per cent of the population is Christian.
Second, both Afghanistan and Iraq have proved that the United States can neither build nations nor create armies out of scratch, especially in countries that have a limited middle class and low education rates, over a decade or two. It takes generations. Not enough people have the knowledge or experience to navigate whole new ways of life, whatever they want in principle. Ethnic and sectarian divisions thwart attempts to overhaul political, social, and economic life all at the same time. The United States spent eighty-three billion dollars training and arming an Afghan force of some three hundred thousand—more than four times the size of the Taliban’s militia. “This army and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day,” Mark Milley told reporters back in 2013. He is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yet, by March, when I was last in Kabul, the Taliban controlled half of the country. Between May and mid-August, it took the other half—most just during the past week. Last month, Biden said that he trusted “the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.” In the end, the Taliban basically walked into Kabul—and the Presidential palace—on Sunday.
Third, America’s standing abroad is profoundly weakened, symbolized by the U.S. Embassy’s lowering the Stars and Stripes for the final time on Sunday. Smoke was seen rising from the grounds of the Embassy—which cost almost eight hundred million dollars to expand just five years ago—as matériel was burned in the rush to exit. Washington will have a hard time mobilizing its allies to act in concert again—whether for the kind of broad and unified alliance, one of the largest in world history, that formed in Afghanistan after 9/11, or for the type of meagre cobbled-together “coalition of the willing” for the war in Iraq. The United States is still the dominant power in the West, but largely by default. There aren’t many other powers or leaders offering alternatives. It’s hard to see how the United States salvages its reputation or position anytime soon.
America’s Great Retreat is at least as humiliating as the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989, an event that contributed to the end of its empire and Communist rule. The United States was in Afghanistan twice as long and spent far more. The Soviet Union is estimated to have spent about fifty billion dollars during the first seven of its ten years occupying the mountainous country. Yes, the United States fostered the birth of a rich civil society, the education of girls, and an independent media. It facilitated democratic elections more than once and witnessed the transfer of power. Thirty-seven per cent of Afghan girls are now able to read, according to Human Rights Watch. The tolo channel hosted eighteen seasons of “Afghan Star,” a singing competition much like “American Idol.” Zahra Elham, a twentysomething member of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, became the first woman to win, in 2019. But untold numbers of the Afghans encouraged by the United States are desperately searching for ways out of the country as the Taliban move in. Women have pulled out their blue burqas again. And the enduring imagery of the Americans flying out on their helicopters will be no different than Soviet troops marching across the Friendship Bridge from Afghanistan to the then Soviet Union on February 15, 1989. Both of the big powers withdrew as losers, with their tails between their legs, leaving behind chaos.
For the United States, the costs do not end with its withdrawal from either Afghanistan or Iraq. It could cost another two trillion dollars just to pay for the health care and disability of veterans from those wars. And those costs may not peak until 2048. America’s longest war will be a lot longer than anyone anticipated two decades ago—or even as it ends. In all, forty-seven thousand civilians have died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. More than twenty-four hundred were U.S. military personnel, and almost four thousand were U.S. contractors.
I first went to Afghanistan in 1999, during the original Taliban rule. I drove through the breathtaking Khyber Pass from Pakistan, past the fortified estates of the drug lords along the border, on the rutted, axle-destroying roads to Kabul. The images of the Taliban’s repressive rule—little kids working on the streets of Afghan towns to support widowed mothers not allowed in public, checkpoints festooned with confiscated audio and video tapes—are indelible. I went back with Secretary of State Colin Powell on his first trip after the fall of the Taliban. There was hope then of something different, even as the prospect of it often seemed elusive, and the idea sullied by the country’s corrupt new rulers. I’ve been back several times since, including in March with General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, Jr., the head of Central Command, who is now overseeing the final U.S. military operations. On Sunday, as America erased its presence in Afghanistan in a race to get out, I wondered: Was it all for naught? What other consequences will America face from its failed campaign in Afghanistan decades from now? We barely know the answers.