The last of the U.S. troops have left Afghanistan, and the 20-year engagement in the region is officially over. There remain several hundred Americans either unable or unwilling to leave and countless Afghans who helped in the American and allied forces in the war against the Taliban. But what will be the approach of the government spin doctors? Will this be a “mission accomplished” moment contingent on the only mission being the evacuation of most American citizens, or will the administration concede that it has failed those who risked their lives to support the two-decade engagement?
In a written statement, President Biden declared that the Afghan chapter of American history is over, saying,
“The past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in US history, evacuating over 120,000 US citizens, citizens of our allies, and Afghan allies of the United States. They have done it with unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve. Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended.”
Yet government sources admit that several hundred Americans and even more allies remain in the region, unable to leave. Biden insists that a new diplomatic relationship will ensue with the Taliban ruler. However, early reports from Fox and several other outlets suggest the Taliban have begun executing those they see as disloyal to the regime. Whether this will develop into one of the largest hostage situations in modern history remains to be seen.
Misguided or Misinformed?
General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of United States Central Command, tangentially acknowledged that the promises made by President Biden had not been fulfilled. He said:
“Look, there’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another ten days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out, and there still would have been people who would have been disappointed with that. It’s a — it’s a tough situation.”
“I believe the Taliban will have their hands full with ISIS-K,” McKenzie opined, touting the increasingly popular line promoted by President Biden that the two groups are “sworn enemies.” However, as the former Afghan interior minister pointed out in August 2020, Taliban groups and ISIS have been known to cooperate, and the organizations who conduct terror attacks together “rebrand” their activities as ISIS-K when it “does not suit them politically” to claim direct responsibility.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued the narrative that the Taliban could be trusted. In his address, he stated that “The Taliban has committed to let anyone with proper documents leave the country in a safe and orderly manner. They’ve said this privately and publicly many times. On Friday, a senior Taliban official said it again on television and radio, and I quote: ‘Any Afghans may leave the country, including those who work for Americans, if they want and for whatever reason there may be,’ end quote.”
His optimism and belief in the words of the Taliban are in direct contradiction to early reports coming out of Kabul.
Not a United Front
Not all military or political voices were as optimistic about the manner of ending the 20-year conflict. Former vice chief of staff of the Army, General Jack Keane, told the BBC that allowing a terrorist organization to take control during the withdrawal was “unforgivable.” He lamented, “I understand nobody expected the regime in Afghanistan to collapse this quickly, but why wouldn’t we change the date we get out? I can’t identify with what we have just done. I’m ashamed of it. It’s a fundamental betrayal.” Keane’s position is one that will likely be the subject of further investigations as to what went wrong.
As the Taliban marched into the airport, they examined the helicopters left behind and fired their guns (courtesy of United States) in victory. The next few days will see the president and his team tout their efforts on the evacuation as almost Herculean, spinning against the perception that this was a disastrous withdrawal in the eyes of the Taliban and much of the world beset by mistake after sad mistake.
If this is a victory for America, it is a pyrrhic victory, indeed.
Read more from Mark Angelides.