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Tragedy in Afghanistan

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I am not a foreign policy expert. Some who read this blog are experienced military veterans, and your views are far better informed than mine. I am sharing my personal opinion here. I welcome you to respond.

Trump made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by May 2020. Biden inherited that agreement and shifted the exit date to August 31, 2021. Knowing that we were leaving, the Taliban moved rapidly to regain control of the country, district by district.

Kori Schake, who worked for the George W. Bush administration in the State Department and the National Security Council, wrote in the New York Times that Trump’s deal with the Taliban was “disgraceful.”

She wrote that:

The problem was that the strongest state in the international order let itself be swindled by a terrorist organization. Because we so clearly wanted out of Afghanistan, we agreed to disreputable terms, and then proceeded to pretend that the Taliban were meeting even those.

Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw all coalition forces from Afghanistan in 14 months, end all military and contractor support to Afghan security forces and cease “intervening in its domestic affairs.” He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions. He agreed that the Taliban could continue to commit violence against the government we were there to support, against innocent people and against those who’d assisted our efforts to keep Americans safe. All the Taliban had to do was say they would stop targeting U.S. or coalition forces, not permit Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to use Afghan territory to threaten U.S. security and subsequently hold negotiations with the Afghan government.

Not only did the agreement have no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, but despite Mr. Trump’s claim that “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen,” the administration made no attempt to enforce its terms. Trump’s own former national security adviser called it “a surrender agreement.”

Biden has accepted responsibility for the chaotic evacuation. He reset the exit date to August 31, and he rejected the pleas of our allies to push the date back a month or two to allow an orderly exit and save more lives. Consequently, an unknown number of American citizens will be left behind, as will many thousands of Afghans who helped us and whose lives (and those of their families) are now in danger.

It’s easy to second-guess the decisions of other people after the fact. But consider this article by Jonathan Guyer in The American Prospect about “The Unheeded Dissent Cable.”

It begins:

A month before the Taliban stormed Afghanistan’s capital, two dozen diplomats in the U.S. embassy in Kabul sent a memo to the State Department warning of imminent collapse. The July 13 dissent cable warned Secretary of State Tony Blinken that the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul would quickly follow a U.S. withdrawal. They said an urgent plan to evacuate Afghan partners was needed.

It was a message that never reached the White House and the National Security Council, which was coordinating President Biden’s directive to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan only learned about the memo after it was reported in The Wall Street Journal, a month after it had been sent, according to three well-placed sources who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the dissent cable.

It’s a lapse that reflects how centralized power in Biden’s orbit has constrained necessary communication among the country’s top national-security leaders.

Beyond the poor communication, I wonder why Biden went along with Trump’s promise to the Taliban. He had already reversed others, like Trump’s absurd decision to leave the Paris climate accord. Biden could have left 5,000 troops in the country to maintain stability. We left many more troops in South Korea, Japan, and Germany, not to wage war but to support our allies in maintaining the peace.

But if we go back to the beginning, twenty years ago, we discover that this was a completely unnecessary war. At the time, the media reported that the Taliban offered to hand Osama bin Ladin over to a third country if only we would stop bombing them. But President George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected the offer. They wanted war, not negotiations.

Alissa J. Rubin reported a few days ago in the New York Times, in an article titled “Did the Afghanistan War Have to Happen?”:

Taliban fighters brandished Kalashnikovs and shook their fists in the air after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, defying American warnings that if they did not hand over Osama Bin Laden, their country would be bombed to smithereens.

The bravado faded once American bombs began to fall. Within a few weeks, many of the Taliban had fled the Afghan capital, terrified by the low whine of approaching B-52 aircraft. Soon, they were a spent force, on the run across the arid mountain-scape of Afghanistan. As one of the journalists who covered them in the early days of the war, I saw their uncertainty and loss of control firsthand.

It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal.The TalibanAnswers to questions about the militants who have seized control in Afghanistan again

“The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between Mr. Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country’s future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in leaving Mullah Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted him captured or dead.

Had the Bush administration taken the deal, there would have been no war.

This was a tragedy: for the Afghan people, especially women and girls; for those Afghans who wanted to build a new society; and for the American service members who were maimed or lost their lives.

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