Twenty years after the September 11 attacks that launched the US-led allied intervention in Afghanistan, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, USMC, commander of US Central Command, defeatedly stated, “We did not get out everyone who wanted to get out.”
It was time to leave Afghanistan, but not like this. Americans and America’s allies deserve accountability for the extreme costs and consequences of the total withdrawal of the United States military presence in Afghanistan after having achieved a politically, militarily and economically sustainable level of engagement in the country that was effective in containing the Taliban. The cost of weapons, ammunition, equipment and infrastructure left behind can be quantified, but the humiliation, the loss of lives, credibility and trust, and the consequences are immeasurable. The “forever war” against Islamic jihadi terrorists did not end because the US left Afghanistan. It will continue, but now against an invigorated, emboldened, excited and more capable foe that has a sanctuary in a new rogue state called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
As the last giant US C-17 transport aircraft departing Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul slowly disappeared into the dark and dusty Afghan sky, the “long war” in Afghanistan ended as it began – with a cowardly and bloody terrorist attack, but this one left both Americans and Afghans mourning the dead, who included more than 200 Afghan civilians and 13 US service members. Americans, allies and Afghan partners left behind are now the hunted and potential hostages as an outraged American president vows to seek revenge against those responsible, who remain defiant and fearless, knowing they have the ultimate leverage.
Whether viewing it from above or on the ground, Afghanistan is a surreal, beautiful and dangerous place, a unique place where the best and worst of humanity can be captured in a single frame as the world saw in scenes broadcast live from the chaotic exodus at Hamid Kharzai International Airport.
The greatest failure of the West’s intervention in Afghanistan was not arming and training the Afghan women to fight. They had everything to lose. Young girls left behind are now destined to be child brides of Taliban fighters and officials, condemned to a life of subjugation and lost opportunity under fundamentalist Taliban rule.
The United States and its allies are now weakened by the US loss of credibility from a failed, bloody and chaotic withdrawal strategy live-streamed faster than President Joe Biden and his national security team could engage in damage control. The exodus on foot now begins for those left behind. The United Nations estimates 500,000 or more are likely to depart Afghanistan by land towards Turkey and into Europe via Greece within the weeks ahead.
There are many to blame for poor tactical and strategic political and military decisions regarding Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Counter to the US and allied military heroic humanitarian airlift of more than 124,000 people and US military and intelligence community veterans leading private efforts to rescue Americans and Afghan partners left behind, the Biden national security team’s decision-making related to the retreat from Afghanistan will provide troves of material for countless case study lessons on failures in leadership, strategy, tactics and execution – a permanent stain on American foreign policy, credibility and global leadership.
The abandoning of American citizens, vulnerable partners, the Afghan people and more than 84 billion dollars in advanced US military weapons to an armed mob of barbaric Taliban fighters is a dereliction of duty and potential crime against humanity with consequences that will play out well beyond Biden’s presidency. An unprecedented failure that warrants accountability at the highest levels of the US government, beginning with Biden and the leadership of his national security team.
This greatest capitulation and betrayal of allies and partners, including US citizens left behind, in US history should serve as a wake-up call to NATO and partners to take investments in defense capabilities, intelligence capabilities, cooperation, training, readiness and strategic autonomy seriously.
Now what? The Taliban announced the formation of its all-Taliban interim government, including officials on terrorist watchlists with multi-million-dollar bounties on their heads. Shamefully, the Taliban have faced no consequences beyond a few angry US State Department tweets concerned about the Taliban lack of “inclusiveness.” International recognition of a Taliban government will now legitimize terrorism as an effective form of political activism.
So, on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, citizens of a leaderless West are reminded they are less safe, more helpless, more uncertain and less prepared to deter and defeat current and future threats than ever before. The international community of authoritarian and rogue nations celebrate the beginning of a new era of emboldened authoritarian ambition and dreams of future conquests. For this epic failure, Americans and America’s allies deserve accountability.
Commander Demetries Grimes is a combat decorated former US naval officer, aviator, diplomat and Afghanistan war veteran. He has served as naval attache to Israel and Greece, deputy commander of the US base on Crete, and adviser to NATO’s maritime commander in London, UK.