A year ago this week, many watched in horror as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in the wake of the chaotic final withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. The Afghan National Army melted away, and within days, Afghanistan was fully under the control of the Taliban, as it was back in 2001, prior to the U.S. invasion that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the country’s economy has collapsed, causing poverty and hunger to soar to humanitarian crisis levels. At the same time, the Taliban have dramatically curtailed political dissent and human rights, particularly for Afghan women.
As a result, some critics call the Afghanistan withdrawal one of the biggest failures of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, if not the biggest. Beyond the damage to Afghanistan itself, some also argue that the chaos of the withdrawal may have emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out his invasion of Ukraine. Although Russia had begun massing troops outside Ukraine’s borders prior to August 2021, the debacle of the Kabul airlift in the last few weeks of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan may have created the impression that the U.S. was too inept or inwardly focused to respond to a security crisis in Europe. Domestically, Afghanistan has faded from the news cycle and voters’ attention, as other issues, from inflation to the impact of Supreme Court decisions, moved to the fore. But there is no doubt that, at the time, it hurt perceptions of Biden’s competence as commander-in-chief.
Make no mistake, Afghanistan was indeed a failure of U.S. foreign policy. But it wasn’t a failure of the Biden administration, or even of former President Donald Trump’s administration, which actually signed the agreement with the Taliban that Biden ultimately followed through on by withdrawing U.S. troops. In many respects, both administrations simply took a difficult step that should have been taken long ago.