Editorial: After 20 years, U.S. leaves Afghanistan in defeat

The Detroit News

The United States officially left Afghanistan late Monday, pulling out the last of its troops, but leaving behind thousands of Afghans who served our mission there and an unknown number of Americans who either couldn't get to the Kabul airport for evacuation or made the deliberate decision to stay. 

The departure ended the longest military mission in U.S. history, one that cost at least $2 trillion and around 2,500 American service members' lives. The last 13 of those casualties came last week during the chaotic exit when terrorists detonated bombs outside the airport.

The United States officially left Afghanistan Tuesday afternoon, pulling out the last of its troops, but leaving behind thousands of Afghans.

While a majority of Americans had wearied of the war in Afghanistan after 20 years with no clear picture of what victory would look like, watching the most potent military in the world flee with its tail between its legs was gut wrenching.

President Joe Biden gets credit for finally bringing the conflict to an end and our remaining troops home; he also owns the blame for the disastrous way in which the evacuation was executed and the responsibility for getting out those we left behind.

America invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks because the country was providing sanctuary to those who carried out the assaults. 

The mission was clearly defined in the beginning by President George W. Bush: To eliminate Afghanistan as an epicenter of Islamic terrorism, and to bring to justice Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida for plotting and carrying out the 9/11 attacks.

Bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed in 2011, 10 years after the attacks on the United States. Al-Qaida has been largely neutralized, though other terrorist groups, most notably the Islamic State, have taken root in Afghanistan.

But over two decades, the U.S. and its allies lacked a determined strategy for carrying out the core objective of Operation Enduring Freedom to establish a stable government in Afghanistan able to fend off the extremism and keep its people secure.

Stability in Afghanistan always depended on the size of the allied force in the country. Strength of the Taliban opposition ebbed and flowed, but never went away.

There were victories to celebrate. Hamid Karzai became Afghanistan's first democratically elected president in 2004. Women, who were effectively prisoners in their homes during Taliban rule, were free to go to schools, join the workforce, own businesses and more fully participate in society.

Most important, since 9/11 there has not been a significant terrorist attack launched on America from Afghanistan.

Now, the allies are gone and the Taliban is back in control. And they are suddenly armed with billions of dollars of sophisticated military equipment, including aircraft, left behind in Biden's hasty exit, making them a much greater danger than they were before.

The U.S. was not likely to succeed in our mission in Afghanistan by staying longer. But it could have done a better job of leaving. 

Aside from the loss of American lives, the mismanaged evacuation also cost the U.S. credibility with its mission allies, many of whom were forced to scramble to get their own personnel out of the country under extremely dangerous conditions. How will they respond the next time America needs their help?

It is difficult to view the 20 years and great investment in Afghanistan as anything but a failure. 

The biggest challenge ahead, without a military presence in the country, is assuring Afghanistan doesn't again become a threat to the security of America and the rest of the free world.