“The war in Afghanistan is now over.”
With these simple but heavy words, President Joe Biden drew a line Tuesday under America’s longest war. It was a 20-year conflict that stretched across four presidencies, took the lives of 2,400 U.S. service members and at least 71,000 Afghan civilians, and cost our nation more than $2.3 trillion.
The rapid, chaotic fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the terrorist group that brutally dominated the country from 1996 until a U.S.-led invasion of 2001, is a tragedy for not only 38 million Afghans but for an international community that tried over two decades to remake the landlocked Central Asian country into a flourishing democracy that respects women’s rights and other human rights.
This editorial board has supported Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, but not the rushed, chaotic manner of that withdrawal, which has resulted in loss of innocent lives, pain and suffering, and raises serious questions about intelligence and planning that merit congressional scrutiny.
Over the past several weeks, some 100,000 Afghan contractors, interpreters, translators and administrative personnel who helped our military, our diplomats, our aid workers, our charities and our media organizations over the past 20 years have been airlifted to safety, along with 5,500 American citizens.
Tragically, many more — at least tens of thousands more — are still stuck in Afghanistan, fearful that schools, freedoms, opportunities and safety will vanish.
The images of Afghans running alongside military planes — and in at least two cases, falling from a military plane as it took off — will never fail to horrify and shock us.
We agree with the difficult, essential decision to end this war. The truth is, 20 years of ruinous conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq have left America weaker, not stronger. Terrorism and extremism, both foreign and domestic, remain major threats to our national security, but far greater threats loom over the long term: China’s challenge to American economic dominance, the unpredictable impacts of a warming atmosphere and pandemics like the COVID-19 crisis that has shut down much of the world over the past 18 months.
Attention must now turn from the folly of the war to the moral imperative to help the Afghan people.
Just as the United States took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the Vietnam War, America and its allies must open their arms to the courageous women and men who helped in Afghanistan, along with their families. There is a humanitarian case to embrace those fleeing persecution, and there is a strategic rationale too, given our obligation toward those who helped us. But there is also the reality that the Afghan refugees will make America’s communities stronger: opening businesses, earning degrees, teaching children, supporting the elderly. Immigrants have always given expression to America’s highest ideals, and Afghan Americans must be given the opportunity to do so.
It is the least we can do after a generation of warfare that has at times seemed futile.
The cold, sad truth, as Biden said Tuesday, is that the United States had only one real aim in invading Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“What is the vital national interest?” he asked. “In my view, we only have one: to make sure that Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.”
The United States was legally obliged to withdraw under the February 2020 deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban. Moreover, an earlier evacuation would have only accelerated the collapse of the Afghan government. War, sadly, is messy.
Are we fearful of another catastrophic terrorist attack — like the suicide bombing that ISIS-K, an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, launched last week outside the Kabul airport? Of course. But we agree with what Biden said.
“The best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy,” he said. “That goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago.”
It will take time for America, and the world, to process the trauma of the past several months. The United States is out of Afghanistan, but the United States cannot leave behind the people of Afghanistan.
We must support Afghans through diplomacy, international influence and humanitarian aid. We must work with regional powers — even countries like Iran and Russia that have tense relationships with the United States — to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a hub for terrorism and lawlessness. America must continue to pursue human rights — through multilateral institutions, and through the power of our example, not through endless military deployments.