In bad news for both hawkish fans of forever war and the Biden administration, Americans favor the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the quagmire in Afghanistan but are deeply unimpressed by how it has been handled. Officials will, no doubt, complain that the public holds them to an impossible standard and allows them no room for correcting errors. But a more accurate read is that people are averse to fiascos and don't appreciate it when politicians and generals conclude decades of ill-advised military intervention with bloody displays of pandemonium.
"With the U.S. military evacuation of Afghanistan completed – bringing America's longest war to an end – 54% of U.S. adults say the decision to withdraw troops from the country was the right one, while 42% say it was wrong," Pew Research reported this week. "The public is also broadly critical of the Biden administration's handling of the situation in Afghanistan: Only about a quarter (26%) say the administration has done an excellent or good job; 29% say the administration has done an only fair job and 42% say it has done a poor job," Pew added.
It should be no surprise that the public supports withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of what 69 percent of them say is failure to achieve the goals of intervention. After all, multiple administrations also believed the U.S. blew it through the lives, years, and fortunes spent in Afghanistan.
"A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable," that newspaper reported in 2019. "They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan," the report added.
The nature of the failure that officials covered up through multiple presidential administrations is a glimpse into the moment we're living right now.
"U.S. officials tried to create — from scratch — a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington," the Post story noted in 2019. "It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law."
That artificial government created and propped up by American officials dried up and blew away almost overnight. Its army abandoned posts and weapons in the course of a frantic week, and its president fled the country, reportedly with large enough stacks of cash to feather his new nest.
The chaos at the end explains why Americans who are pleased that the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan are simultaneously upset by how the departure was handled. After all, a few things (including a great many people who deserved better) were left behind amid panic and violence, including a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 13 Americans and more than 150 Afghans.
"We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out," Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, conceded after the last planes left Kabul.
Among those left behind were "between 100 and 200 Americans who remain in Afghanistan who may have some interest in leaving," according to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Toria Nuland.
Also left to the tender mercies of the Taliban, according to an anonymous State Department official, were a "majority" of the tens of thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who helped the U.S. effort and sought refuge in the United States in fear of the poor treatment they're bound to receive under the new regime.
"The U.S. still doesn't have reliable data on who was evacuated, nor for what type of visas they may qualify, the official said, but initial assessments suggested most visa applicants didn't make it through the crush at the airport," notes The Wall Street Journal.
Remaining in Afghanistan, too, are billions of dollars in weapons supplied by the United States that belonged to the collapsed Afghan Army. They will, no doubt, continue to contribute to the vast human cost of military intervention in that country.
So, there's plenty to regret about America's intervention in Afghanistan, starting from the very beginning, running through the long years of fighting and nation-building, right up to the frenzied, ignominious conclusion.
President Joe Biden, understandably a little defensive about the images of retreating troops, torn bodies, and desperate civilians, insists there was no way to get out "without chaos ensuing." He may well be right; a situation that politicians and military officers spent 20 years turning into a disaster while pretending it was a success was unlikely to come to a clean and bloodless end. But Biden was a life-long member of the political class, enthusiastically sought the presidency, and gets to own the outcome.
For Americans at large, the larger takeaway is that we don't have to witness scenes of returning body bags, defeat, and frenzied evacuation of Americans and allies if we don't create these situations to begin with. The fall of Kabul has inevitably been compared to the fall of Saigon, and for good reason. The wars in South Vietnam and Afghanistan were both ill-conceived disasters that dragged on, cost lives and treasure, and resulted in humiliation. And neither had to happen; we had no good reason for extended stays in either country, propping up doomed puppet regimes and hoping for a happy ending that was never going to come.
In acknowledging the failure of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and the good sense of finally withdrawing, but also expressing regret over the messy conclusion of America's role, Americans demonstrate more wisdom than most government and military officials have shown over the years. If the political class can't learn from its mistakes, maybe it will at least take a hint from public sentiment.