Afghanistan: The Mistake Wasn’t Going In, It Was How We Left

September 5, 2021 Updated: September 7, 2021


My first encounter with Afghanistan was many years ago, through Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.”

The book is a hoot, partly because Newby made it quite clear that no walk in the Hindu Kush is short, but mostly because of its dramatization of the encounter between a modern Westerner and the harsh, primitive tribalism of a society caught in the past like a bug in amber.

I think my next virtual trip to Afghanistan was through Peter Hopkirk’s riveting book “The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia.”

Hopkirk’s account of Maj. Gen. William Elphinstone’s disastrous withdrawal from Kabul in 1842—out of a party of 16,000 people, precisely one European, army surgeon William Brydon, made it out alive—made a deep impression on me.

“Where’s the army?” Brydon was asked when, badly wounded, he wobbled into the British garrison in Jalalabad, some 90 miles east of Kabul.

“I am the army,” he replied.

Miraculously, Brydon lived for another 20 years. The pony that bore him into the fort wasn’t so fortunate. He lay down directly and never rose.

There’s a reason that Afghanistan is called the “graveyard of empires.”

The Russians know a thing or two about that, although they at least managed their withdrawal in an orderly fashion—unlike the United States, whose departure from Afghanistan, though not as sanguinary as Elphinstone’s, may well have larger global repercussions.

I should say for the record that I strongly supported America’s entry into Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.

Indeed, it might be said that I supported it more strongly than our leaders, since I thought the rules of engagement we followed hampered the effective prosecution of the assault.

Early on in the campaign, for example, we had a clear shot at Taliban bigwig Mullah Omar, but permission to take him out was denied for fear of collateral damage.

I should also say that I supported former President Donald Trump’s plan to extricate the United States from what had become America’s longest war.

Was his deal with the Taliban, the so-called Doha agreement, a good one?

Maybe not.

Trump had promised to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of May 2021, provided that the Taliban upheld their end of the bargain, which prominently included a promise that they would engage in “intra-Afghan dialogue” in order to achieve a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” that would yield a “political roadmap” for the country’s future.

As a recent story in The Wall Street Journal notes, “Trump administration officials emphasized the conditional nature of the U.S. commitment when the Doha agreement was signed.”

Trump’s secretary of defense, Mark Esper, noted in March 2020 that Doha “is a conditions-based agreement.”

If “we assess that the Taliban is honoring the terms of the deal,” he said, “including progress on the political front between the Taliban and the current Afghan government,” the United States will “reduce our presence toward a goal of zero in 2021.”


Should progress toward that goal stall, then “our drawdown likely will be suspended, as well,” Esper said.

I mention this minutia to answer critics of Trump’s plan, in and out of the Biden administration.

The administration’s whining that the evacuation was Trump’s plan, and, therefore, it was bad, but nonetheless that it was “extraordinarily successful” is especially risible or, to be more strictly accurate, is pathetic.

The Taliban didn’t abide by the agreement. They took the country by force, and they did it in such short order that Gen. Mark Milley didn’t even have time to complain about all the “white rage” on view.

That said, Biden’s mistake wasn’t in withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

His mistake was twofold: not holding the Taliban to their word and utterly bungling—bungling that rises to the level of criminal negligence—the evacuation.

A memo to the “experts” in the State Department: The next time you have to withdraw from a hostile country, don’t, I repeat, don’t abandon your chief strategic airbase before evacuating U.S. citizens and our allies.

Also, don’t leave behind hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware for the enemy to procure and use against its own population and, in due course, the West.

Finally, don’t listen to anything that Antony Blinken says.

I stress again, however, that Biden’s mistake wasn’t in leaving Afghanistan.

That was long overdue.

His mistake was the way he left.

Writing at The Spectator World, Daniel McCarthy got to the nub of the issue.

“Biden deserves censure for a thousand reasons,” McCarthy wrote.

“But the public deserves an honest accounting of the war itself, which was never winnable in the way that those who sold the conflict to America at the outset had promised.”

Twenty years and $2 trillion later, we all know that (well, maybe not Bill Kristol or David French, but everyone who matters).

McCarthy underscored the hard truth of the situation.

“Afghanistan is a disaster not primarily because of Biden but because our leadership class, in politics and the media alike, cannot confront uncomfortable truths.”

Above all, the uncomfortable truth is that Afghanistan was always an unlikely candidate for the institution of liberal democracy, and all the nonsense about “diversity,” “gender equity,” and the like that accompanies the American variety of liberalism like a limpet.

No, we should have gone into Afghanistan after 9/11 and devastated al-Qaeda and anyone harboring them.

Then, we should have left.

We didn’t, and the result is this sucking mess that’s destroying the Biden administration and will likely have very serious implications for America’s status on the international stage.

Again, McCarthy was absolutely correct: “Afghanistan was lost the minute the mission became democracy-promotion and nation-building. A humiliating end was written in failures right at the start.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”