The U.S. Failure in Afghanistan Was Not the Withdrawal

The U.S. Failure in Afghanistan Was Not the Withdrawal
An Afghan man pumps water from a well in the old town of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 24, 2009 (AP photo by Anja Niedringhaus).

This past week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings on the Biden administration’s controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Retired Gens. Mark A. Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, who both served in leadership roles under President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, testified and faced questions from congressional leaders from both parties. In explaining Washington’s failures in Afghanistan, Milley told Congress that the U.S. “could not forge a nation.” He has previously stated that the U.S. had “lost the war.”

The hearings are not related to Congress’ bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission, which is investigating the entire 20-year period of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and whose report will be released later. Rather, they are an effort by congressional Republicans to draw negative attention to the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the runup to the November presidential election. As such, the hearings have become a renewed focal point for political narratives about blame. But they also create an opportunity to consider counterfactual hypothetical scenarios that could expand our understanding of the U.S failure in Afghanistan.

For many Democrats as well as Republicans, the mishandling of the withdrawal is seen as a moral blight on the U.S., which having first broken Afghanistan then walked away. Even for the majority of U.S. citizens who believed leaving was the right thing to do, the chaotic nature of the withdrawal itself and the failure to adequately protect Washington’s Afghan allies during and after the withdrawal have caused concern. A separate U.S. State Department report from 2022 traced the roots of the botched evacuation to the policies of both the Biden and Trump administrations.

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