Reach-871, the Air Force C-17 transport flight that left Kabul late Sunday with desperate Afghans dropping out of the rear door as it took off, landed in Qatar hours later with a dead body in the wheel well. While the official departure date for the U.S. is still August 31, once the U.S. departed its last major military installation at Bagram Air Base on July 6, the Taliban wasted no time. The Taliban captured city after city, seized its first province on August 6, conquered the rest of the country and entered Kabul on the 15th. This week the United States, leaving billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment and weapons at the Taliban’s disposal, is completing the evacuation of our embassy and remaining citizens amidst the worst sort of chaos.
I think anyone who reads a newspaper can see that the U.S./NATO coalition’s departure from Afghanistan under any circumstances would result in a human rights crisis for the Afghan people. How the U.S. made its final exit simply made a difficult situation a global blunder.
Americans can pick their President to blame as we wring our hands over Afghanistan: Bush 43 (going in the first place); Obama (staying after the assassination of Osama bin Laden or after semi-stability under Karzai); Trump (a “peace accord” with a terrorist group and an irresponsible drawdown of troops).
In his remarks on Monday, as Air Force Reach-871 crew members disposed of the corpse in the wheel well, President Joe Biden went with the easy button. He told us that he simply was coping with the hand he was dealt: “When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban.” For a man with a ringside seat in the Senate and the White House as key decisions about our role in Afghanistan were made, that was a pretty hollow explanation.
The United States had many options and tools for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. Somehow, exactly zero of these were put into use. I’ve seen articles blaming the military. Or flawed intelligence. Really? Remember, everyone, the folks in civilian attire tell the folks in uniforms what to do in America, not the other way around. That’s a rather important detail.
Trump’s heavy drawdown in 2020 was too much, too fast, and went forward without requiring the Taliban to meet any conditions of the so-called peace accord. Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pushed back and was fired over it. Our troop numbers dropped from over 13,000 in the spring of 2020 to 2,500 by January 15 of this year. The Afghan Defense Forces saw this, and so did the Taliban. So did President Biden.
The decision to stay with Trump’s plan was one purely based on domestic politics: Americans wanted out of the war. So be it. Plans should have been made immediately—immediately—for orderly evacuation of key interpreters and other Afghans who worked for the coalition; evacuation of non-government organization (NGO) personnel; reinforcement of the embassy; and management of a major refugee diaspora. None of this, NONE OF THIS, happened. This is inexcusable. Our NATO and coalition partners are not, and should not be, taking this well.
Today, China is negotiating with the Taliban with a primary aim of ensuring it doesn’t ally with China’s Muslim Uighur minority whom it has been brutally repressing for decades. On a secondary level, China has a strategic interest in exploiting Afghanistan’s virgin rare earth deposits and the Taliban needs the cash. Russia is also interested in making friends with its old enemy from the 1980s because it makes America look foolish.
The news reports in the coming days and weeks are going to be hard to watch. The Taliban are not a reliable negotiating partner, especially when it is not held accountable to the original agreement in the first place. The United States has much to do to repair its reputation as a democratic superpower, not unlike 1975. Let’s hope our leaders have the will and personal discipline to put aside petty politics and elevate the Nation once again.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.