The Unexpected, Predictable End of the War in Afghanistan

The bloody, tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan was a predictable disaster. It was also an incredible, surprising anti-war victory.


Sometimes winning looks and feels like losing. This summer's bloody, tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan was a predictable disaster. It was also an incredible, surprising anti-war victory.

My own thoroughly jaded worldview dictated that after two decades and $2 trillion, the only two realistic options were to stay in Afghanistan forever or depart in a blaze of chaos. As it happened, we got the latter. But I would have bet a great deal on the former.

The strategic and logistical failures of the botched withdrawal perfectly echoed the strategic and logistical failures of the occupation, and were made inevitable by those failures spanning four administrations.

Experts have made the case that there were several junctures where pulling out would have been less painful and less costly than it turned out to be in 2021: as early as November 2001, when an exhausted and discombobulated Taliban offered a deal to incoming Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for example, or after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.

But just as there was always going to be a last man to die for a mistake, there was always going to be a last helicopter out. There were always going to be broken promises and people left behind. And the backers of this forever war were always going to wield those failures in defense of continued engagement.

My darkly pessimistic assessment about the likelihood of a smooth, orderly departure from the region was echoed by none other than President Joe Biden in his August 31 remarks marking the formal end of the war: "Now some say we should have started a massive evacuation sooner, and couldn't this have been done in a more orderly manner? I respectfully disagree."

The Biden administration had been planning the withdrawal for months. Technically it has been in the works for even longer, as President Donald Trump promised a drawdown well before he left office. But it's understandable if the military brass was treating the whole matter as a fire drill right up until go-time. After all, they'd been down the road to withdrawal a few times before, and on each occasion the generals and their allies pressured the commander in chief to turn back at the last minute. Understandable, but nonetheless unforgivable.

It is likewise understandable that U.S. armed forces thought the Afghan military—which it had spent nearly 20 years, tens of thousands of man-hours, and hundreds of billions of dollars equipping and training—would hold back the insurgent Taliban for more than a single day, providing more time to put those plans into action. Understandable, but again, unforgivable.

I genuinely believed Biden would flinch when costs of departure began to mount, just as his predecessors had done. I subscribed to the "fool me once" school of thought on political promises to end wars.

Americans, it seemed to me, were broadly content to let the slow leakage of blood and treasure go unremarked upon, so it was not hard to understand why previous presidents, even Barack Obama and Trump—both of whom seemed to have sincere qualms about American engagement in the Hindu Kush—chose not to attempt a risky pullout. Though support for the war had declined, it was hardly at politically catastrophic levels in 2020. A National Opinion Research Center poll in fall 2020 found that 34 percent of respondents supported troop withdrawals while 25 percent opposed them. But only 59 percent of those polled felt comfortable answering the question at all. Americans simply didn't know what they thought about Afghanistan anymore by the time Biden took office.

The least interesting and most covered element of the 2021 withdrawal has been its impact on the reelection prospects of Biden and his party. But not everything is about the horse race, nor should it be. The far more interesting question is why Biden actually ended the war in Afghanistan at all, given the powerful forces aligned against him on the topic, most notably a bipartisan hawkish media and a fairly indifferent American public.

Did he do it because he promised he would? That logic certainly hasn't held with respect to his campaign promises of immigration liberalization or police oversight. It's hard to imagine he did it out of a sense of fiscal responsibility, given the many trillions his administration has shoveled into the federal furnace in just a few short months. Could it be that he thought it was simply the right thing to do? That he couldn't bear to see more Americans die for nothing on his watch?

The hawks' trump card has always been the notion that victory was just out of reach, that just a little more time, a little more money, a little more leeway would make it all worth it.

But sending more people into harm's way for ill-defined goals does nothing to justify the tragic loss of those already gone. If anything, invoking their deaths to continue in a fruitless struggle multiplies them—the horrible compound interest of war. And make no mistake, the struggle was indeed fruitless, as the rapid collapse of everything Americans had worked for demonstrated in short order.

One of the most profound biases at work in America's sustained foreign entanglements has long been the notion of sunk costs. This may feel like an unseemly way to refer to the 2,461 American troops and 3,846 contractors who lost their lives in Afghanistan, to say nothing of the 66,000 members of the Afghan military and police and the tens of thousands more Afghan civilians. Yet for years, there has been a desperate, futile effort to redeem their deaths with victory. Also among the dead: 72 journalists, 444 aid workers, and 1,144 allied service members, according to the Associated Press.

The upsides of leaving are invisible: money not spent, American deaths not incurred, backlash not inspired. The costs of leaving were visible and photogenic: desperate mobs at the airport in Kabul, weeping girls donning chadri, Taliban thugs posing with stolen American gear. Those costs were real, but they were largely costs of the U.S. presence in the first place.

Even in the midst of the messy departure, the U.S. armed forces managed a rather impressive feat: At the August 30 Pentagon press briefing where the official end of American engagement in Afghanistan was announced, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. described the emergency evacuation. "Since August the 14th, over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport," including 6,000 Americans and 73,500 others, said McKenzie. "In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by U.S. military service members who were securing and operating the airfield." This is incredible work—achievable only once the goals were simple, clear, and agreed upon, the opposite of the conditions faced by our armed forces for decades in Afghanistan.

My baseline assumptions of government incompetence were both validated and undermined by the way the withdrawal played out. Honest hawks must be forced to contend with the through-the-looking-glass version of my cynical plight: How could armed forces so disastrously ill-informed and ill-prepared for withdrawal ever have managed to pacify and rebuild a nation as challenging as Afghanistan in the first place?

Old habits die hard, and even now I am not convinced the war is fully over, though the spectacular conflagration U.S. forces left in their wake will make it more difficult to reverse course at this point.

The president doesn't seem inclined to second thoughts, however. "This decision about Afghanistan is not only about Afghanistan," said Biden in his August 31 remarks. "It's about ending an era of major military missions to rebuild other countries." It remains to be seen if this is true. My cynicism may yet be rescued by fresh new foreign adventurism. But at least for now, a forever war has unexpectedly ended in the most predictable way possible.

NEXT: Brickbat: Don't Let That Training Go to Waste

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  1. The far more interesting question is why Biden actually ended the war in Afghanistan at all

    Because Obama told him to. Obama wanted to end the war but he couldn’t because the political cost would be too high. Now that Obama is serving his third term to which he wasn’t even elected, his little puppet is the one who bears the political cost and it doesn’t cost him a thing.

    1. The far more interesting question is why Biden actually ended the war in Afghanistan at all

      The Biden regime called off the withdrawal, sent more troops in, and did everything it could to keep American civilians from leaving even as the Taliban was busy sacking Kabul. None of this points to an intention to leave.

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  2. “The costs of leaving were visible and photogenic: desperate mobs at the airport in Kabul, weeping girls donning chadri, Taliban thugs posing with stolen American gear. Those costs were real, but they were largely costs of the U.S. presence in the first place.”

    True, if not for the US presence, Afghanistan would always have been a murderous Islamist Theocracy, and the people there would never have had hope for anything better. It would have been better not have experienced relative freedom at all, so sayeth the libertarians.

    1. There are dozens of shithole countries with godawful governments, is it the US’ responsibility to spend 20 years trying to impose democracy on all of them? Why Afghanistan and not Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Venezuela or Australia?

      1. That would be a good question from someone who was ignorant of the history of the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but I do not think you have such ignorance.

        Furthermore, the issue is whether the Afghan people falling back under the despotism is of the Taliban is something to just shrug one’s shoulders about as the cost people like KMW are willing to pay.

        1. If they like the taliban, they can keep their taliban.

  3. Im amazed their water carrying Afghanistan article for this disgrace of an administration took this long.

    I guess it took reason a few weeks to figure out how to spin the embarrassing failure of the afghan withdrawal as a “libertarian moment”.

    1. Oh and yeah…

      Cute how you say trump didn’t withdrawal us…

      But Biden literally tries blaming trumps doha agreement as the reason he just haaaaaad to get out of Afghanistan like a retard fighting his bed sheets.

    2. This has pretty much been their narrative since the withdrawal began. They’ve praised Biden for getting out (while ignoring it was Trump who signed the agreement to get us out sooner) and claimed the catastrophic nature of Biden’s withdrawal was inevitable. None of the writers have outright condemned the changes to and violations of our withdrawal agreement. They haven’t put the blame squarely where it belongs for the blatantly idiotic tactical and logistical plans executed. These results were not inevitable. They come from incompetence at best and malice against Americans and service members at worst.

      1. The only thing they wanted was to be able to say that there was “no war” and were willing to pay any cost and suffer any humiliation, and willing to see the the enslavement or murder of any number of Afghanis to obtain that goal.

        1. So you have no idea how many civilians were droned during those 20 years and we don’t call it murder, we call it collateral damage. Wherever the US install a puppet democratic gang, it makes sure they sign a paper stating no US soldier will be held accountable for any war crimes. This is why others look evil and we look good. Other’s war crimes illegal and called murder while our war crimes are legal and called collateral damage.

    3. Actually it was. Before there was a libertarian party, Lyndon was cowed into toe-ing the national socialist invade and burn line. Then the Gestapo’s Own Party insisted on even more foreign entanglement outsourced via enslavement of poorer people’s kids. Yet to this day there are simpletons struggling to imagine there is a real difference between the two wrinkling halves of the looter Kleptocracy.

    4. It’s the summer Blockbuster. Instead of “Independence Day” or “Forrest Gump,” it’s your governmental overlords punting on 3rd down … and letting it getting blocked.

  4. “The Unexpected, Predictable End of the War in Afghanistan”

    How can it be unexpected and predictable at the same time?

    1. You, rather overtly, must ignore the intervening actions of parties involved. It’s a portrayal of selective ignorance/impotence as wisdom. An empty platitude.

      Any given Sunday, one team wins and one team loses. Which one is a surprise. Unless you’re one of those idiots who’s actually paying attention.

    2. The second paragraph explains it pretty well

  5. Reason droning on with excuses for the botched abandonment. It didn’t affect their inner cocktail party circle so the narrative is easy to push.

  6. Mr. Buttplug has taught me a simple flowchart that produces the ideal left-libertarian response to any discussion of Afghanistan:

    Does the discussion imply Biden deserves any of the blame?
    If yes, attempt to shut down the discussion by saying SLOPPY PULLOUT!!!!!!!11111
    If not, emphasize that the withdrawal was a chaotic, needlessly bloody mess — and remind everyone that Juan Cole said it’s all Drumpf’s fault.


    1. Bravo! Fascist tears are sweet as honey. I’ll almost miss the comic relief after women voters teach the Fuhrerprinzip Gestapo a thing or three about the 19th Amendment next election.

      1. Hehehe, the little shills are getting super defensive now, trying to distract from their dire reality by pointing at some local abortion law. Your crouched down, fearful posture since after the Afghanistan blowout has been delicious to watch. 🙂

  7. The disaster surrounding the withdrawal did not have to happen.
    Here, I’ll spell it out for you.
    First off, follow the agreement negotiated by Trump and leave on the appointed day.
    Second. about six months before the appointed day, abandon Karzai Airport and concentrate all forces at the more easily defensible Bagram airport.
    The Turks wanted the contract to defend Karzai airport, so give it to them.
    At the same time send out mass mailings, emails, and even door-to-door announce evacuation of all U S and allied personnel from Bagram airport.
    Speed up the vetting of afghan citizens who helped us and are in danger from Taliban reprisal.
    Use the six months to evacuate all the people you want.
    Embassy personnel can be ferried out on helicopters from the embassy to Bagram on the last day.
    Finally, destroy all stocks of weapons, ammunition, and vehicles that are going to fall into Taliban hands.
    Easy, peasy

    1. Translation: Trump looters goood, Dem looters baaad.

      1. This summarizes your skills as a translator very well. A degraded, pretentious fake who never managed to make the cut.

    2. “The disaster surrounding the withdrawal did not have to happen.
      Here, I’ll spell it out for you.”

      None of the items you spell out would have persuaded ISIS from their terror attack. None would have turned a defeat into a victory. That page was turned before Biden, Trump or Obama played their parts in the tragedy.

    3. The only things I’d disagree with:
      1. A credible president would have called the Taliban and said, “We’re pulling out. Play nice and you get what you want. If a firecracker goes off, you will pay for it.”
      2. Fetch the citizens and assets who were too far from Bagram to safely travel by helicopter;
      3. Much of the equipment should have been evacuated.

  8. the only two realistic options were to stay in Afghanistan forever or depart in a blaze of chaos.

    On its face this looks like a false dichotomy, but it is actually true. Thinking Biden would keep Bagram open and maintain troop levels until all civilians were out and out remaining equipment was destroyed isn’t even remotely realistic.

    1. Of course, thinking Biden would provide civilians or anyone else of the pull-out date so preparations could be made is also a fantasy. This, not getting out at all, is the source of the colossal fuck up and the source of rage against the administration, but these idiots would prefer to dance on graves to claim they’re smart rather than acknowledge reality.

    2. Not unrealistic at all. Any combat arms second lieutenant fresh out of Officer Basic could have planned a phased withdrawal.

      IMHO had President Trump told the Pentagon to execute a plan, they would have done so. The article is probably correct that the flag ranks really didn’t think President Biden would hold the course.

  9. This is a most excellent piece. Thank you!

  10. Mangu’s comeback as a first-class libertarian writer was worth waiting for. Her insightful realization was that this dumpster-fire of failure has spanned four (count ’em, 4) “administrations” smeared across the faces of “both” halves of the Looter Kleptocracy. Gary Johnson’s acceleration of Libertarian Party election returns to a curve increasing at 80% a year with 4 million votes counted pressured Trump’s faction into committing bail out. The alternative was to bear the sight of Libertarians voting against girl-bullying from seats in both House and Senate.

  11. Biden got out of Afghanistan so his CCP masters could move in.

    1. They can have it. Let them throw trillions of yuan and thousands of lives into that black hole.

      1. China doesn’t have a problem with the Taliban. They want to work with them not get rid of them. China is going to enrich the Taliban with mining profits. So it’s not the same.

    2. Yup. The Chinese will ‘invade’ with wads of cash and mining equipment.

      1. “The Chinese will ‘invade’ with wads of cash and mining equipment.”

        First, road building equipment and other infrastructure projects. Let’s hope the Chinese can also broker peace between the Taliban and the Northern warlords, something the US failed to do despite 20 years of occupation. To be fair, the US never tried.

        1. First, let’s hope trueman grows a second brain cell.
          Well, no; we’d get even more piles of shit.

  12. “Donald Trump promised a drawdown well before he left office.”

    Donald Trump negotiated a full withdrawal agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020. When the U.S. backed government in Kabul dragged its feet on releasing the Taliban’s prisoners, Trump withheld their aid until they released the prisoners and named a team to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban in Doha. If we had reelected Trump, we would have been out of Kabul by May 1, 2021–per the terms of the withdrawal agreement Trump negotiated with the Taliban.

    A few days after Biden was inaugurated, he announced that they were reviewing the withdrawal deal Trump negotiated with the Taliban, and that they didn’t like it because the agreement didn’t require the Taliban to respect the rights of women. Everyone thought that meant we were never leaving–because if we can’t leave until the Islamic fundamentalists who run the Taliban sign the Equal Right Amendment, then we’ll never leave.

    About two weeks before the May 1st deadline, when we were scheduled to withdraw completely, Biden unilaterally announced that the United States was leaving Afghanistan after all–but not until September 11th. In doing so, Biden violated the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Biden had seven months to withdraw Americans and our allies, but he didn’t really get started until the Taliban waltzed into Kabul on August 15th and surrounded the airport.

    Getting us a full withdrawal out of Afghanistan was mostly due to Trump’s efforts.

    Failing in the execution of the withdrawal was completely Biden’s fault, and would have been avoided if he’d stuck to Trump’s time table.

    If your opposition to Trump is such that it leads you to confuse the true means by which we were able to withdraw and conflate it with the “success” of Joe Biden’s incompetent withdrawal, then you’re not doing the anti-war cause any good. Nothing we can choose to avoid is unavoidable, and Biden could have avoided the messy means by which we withdrew by holding true to the schedule Trump negotiated. There is no good reason to believe that withdrawals can’t be effectuated without leaving Americans and our allies behind.

    1. then you’re not doing the anti-war cause any good

      Anti-war, libertarian, republican, democrat, democracy, humanity… not doing any of it any good.

    2. “Nothing we can choose to avoid is unavoidable, and Biden could have avoided the messy means by which we withdrew by holding true to the schedule Trump negotiated. ”

      You think ISIS gives a shit about the agreements between Taliban, Biden and Trump? I think not. They thrive on chaos and terror, and an orderly withdrawal of US forces don’t play into that.

      1. So when the WH assures us that the Taliban is gonna respect women you can be sure that they’re just regurgitating the lies of the agents of chaos.

        1. I trust the Taliban more than ISIS when it comes to the treatment of women. ISIS are suicide bombers and terrorists, the Taliban are Pashtun insurgents. It was ISIS who perpetrated the horrific bombing that killed so many including women and Taliban and others.

          1. Nobody gives a shit as to who an assholic bullshitter like you “trusts”.
            You seem to think that when your momma said you were smart, it was true. It isn’t; you’re a fucking ignoramus.

      2. I think everybody who knows anything understands that during the winter the Taliban are snowed in and movement is minimized.

        Biden’s delay allowed the Taliban to mobilize and start the offensive.

        1. Between May 1st and August 15th, the Taliban moved their supplies and troops into the areas around Kabul without encountering resistance. Biden had seven months to withdraw Americans and our allies, and he didn’t even really start until the Taliban surrounded the airport in Kabul. And it wasn’t because of Trump. It was because the Biden administration was incompetent. Trump would have had us out by May 1st, when the Taliban wouldn’t have been in Kabul.

          1. “It was because the Biden administration was incompetent.”

            It was because the US lost the war. The losers don’t set the terms of the withdrawal, they have to live with what the victors are willing to concede.

            1. The terms had been set prior and Botcher Biden unilaterally decided to extend it so he could have a photo op event on Sept 11 to stroke his ego. Had he gotten the civilians out by March it likely would have played out differently.

              1. “The terms had been set prior ”

                There were no terms set with ISIS which was responsible for the suicide bombing that took so many lives, not the Taliban. Had the US won the war, things would have played out differently. That wasn’t the case though, and ISIS had no interest in making Trump or Biden look good. Their game is terror and chaos.

        2. “Biden’s delay allowed the Taliban to mobilize and start the offensive.”

          The war was lost years ago. Leaving a few weeks earlier wouldn’t have stopped the inevitable Taliban advance.

          1. “…The war was lost years ago. Leaving a few weeks earlier wouldn’t have stopped the inevitable Taliban advance…”

            The bullshitter trueman is here to prove once again what an ignorant ignoramus he is:
            Hint, assholish piece of lefty shit, many, many, people get killed by even a day’s delay in military activity, and I’m sure that’s a surprise to a fucking ignoramus like you.
            Fuck off and die.

  13. B doesn’t brush his teeth until O says it’s time.

  14. I need to both give Trump and Biden credit that Trump put the end of the War in Afghanistan into motion and that Biden actually followed through.

    True that both could have done more and could have executed the end better than how it was conducted. I do not trust Biden to keep the US out of other military actions and with his recent actions he clearly has authoritarian tendencies and has no qualms about using force to exert his political agenda.

    1. Bullshit.
      Biden didn’t ‘follow through’; he fucked things up enough to end up with a self-administered ass-kicking and got run out of the country.

  15. “U.S. armed forces thought the Afghan military… would hold back the insurgent Taliban…” Ha! No, we didn’t. Anyone who’d actually been there knew the ANDSF weren’t capable.

  16. Once people accept that the goal of the “withdrawal” was to bring as many unvetted Afghans to America as possible, to help alter the demographics and destroy the culture of the U.S., they will realize that this was mirroring the success seen on the southern border.

  17. Afghanistan is the perfect place from which to keep an eye on China, Iran, Pakistan, and others in the region. we hadn’t taken a casualty in 18 months and our presence, with about 4500 troops, was indefinitely sustainable. The only fly in the ointment was the willful blindness of senior military commanders to the corruption and venality of the GIROA.

    Anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of conventional ANA and ANP personnel were “ghosts” who existed on paper so that their commanders could divert those salaries for their own profit, kicking a percentage up the chain of command, not unlike an OC Family. The ANA and ANP Special Operations units, as well as the NDS paramilitary units conducted themselves admirably, but really couldn’t be expected to hold the line by themselves. Once the Afghan Air Force collapsed after the US pulled their contract maintenance personnel, the collapse was inevitable.

    The idea that there any real degree of planning for this mess would be laughable if it weren’t tragic. State was placed in charge of the evacuation for reasons which only make sense in the disordered brain of Joe Biden. State has no expertise in an operation of this type and there’s no reason to expect them to have any. it’s not their job. I suppose we should be grateful it went as well as it did. When action is required, you don’t call in the cookie-pushers.

    1. “When action is required, you don’t call in the cookie-pushers.”

      Wasn’t it the military who was responsible for letting night vision goggles and other equipment fall into the hands of the insurgents? Blaming the State Department for that seems wrong headed.

  18. The anti-war movement had nothing to do with the withdrawal. There has not been a serious anti-war demonstration in years in the USA.

    A major reason for the Afghan withdrawal is because the Pentagon and Defense contractors are “tilting” towards the Pacific and poking at China. That’s where a lot of the military budget is heading. The US will get out of a low intensity conflict in Eurasia and ratchet it up to a bigger intensity war in Eastasia.

    And you read it here first.

  19. The SoHO forum debate last night between Scott Horton and Bill Kristol should be required watching for Americans. The true nature of all the wars since the end of the cold war were covered. America’s foreign policy went off the rails in 1991 with horrible results to America and the world but enriched the “Kristol” class of globalists, hedge funds, defense contractors, NGOs, think tanks and certain foreign countries…and the blame starts with the worst form of Republican.the country club Bush.

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