Wineke: What would a “successful” Afghanistan withdrawal look like?

From 9/11’s Ashes, A New World Took Shape. It Did Not Last.
Rahmat Gul

FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021 file photo, a U.S. Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Helicopters landed at the embassy as diplomatic vehicles left the compound amid the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital.

MADISON, Wis. — It’s pretty much official that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years was “botched.”

Virtually every newspaper account, television account, and pundit account use “botched” as a prefix for the withdrawal.

To be honest, the scenes from Kabul were embarrassing. Thousands of Afghan men and women crowded the airport begging for a way out. A suicide bomber caused mayhem at the airport gates. The country’s president disappeared overnight. We saw people plunge to their deaths after they held on to the wheels of a departing flight.

It was not pretty.

What I don’t hear from those so willing to condemn the president and the military about the “botched” withdrawal is what a successful departure from a 20-year war might look like.

President Trump says he had a deal with the Taliban, and that the Taliban would never consider thwarting him for fear of righteous retaliation.

Maybe, but I haven’t seen a bit of evidence that Trump’s deal included evacuating 100 thousand plus Afghan collaborators and their families. In fact, the most recent reporting suggests the former president wanted to just pull American troops out overnight, leaving the Afghans to cope for themselves.

Others suggest we were getting along fine with a couple thousand troops in the field, so what would be the purpose of withdrawing. But, if I understand the situation correctly, the deal Trump cut with the Taliban offered them victory so long as they didn’t bother our troops in the interim.

If we broke our end of the bargain, why would we assume the Taliban would keep theirs?

The thing is that we were at war in Afghanistan. We had plans for ending that war and the Taliban, as the military saying goes, “had a vote.”

Our plans didn’t include having the Afghan president flee the country or the Afghan Army just giving up the fight.

So one of the last battles in that war ended up in a tactical retreat. That happens in wars.

And what did we do in response to that retreat? Within a couple of weeks, we airlifted 120,000 people out of the country. That number included almost every American who wanted to leave. It included many of those who risked their lives to side with us. It included women and children.

What happened didn’t go the way we planned it. But we must have had a pretty good backup plan to achieve the result we achieved.

That we didn’t expect what happened was an intelligence failure. Intelligence failures happen in wars, too. But I think the way we responded to that failure was pretty remarkable.

It all does lead to another thought, however. The pundits and journalists and politicians who are so sure everything was botched also keep warning us that we have lost a crucial means of keeping track of terrorists because we will no longer have “eyes on the ground.”

That’s true. But if our intelligence wasn’t good enough to tell us what was going on with our friends in Afghanistan, why do we assume it would do better keeping track of the enemy?