Since the withdrawal of American citizens and at-risk Afghans began in earnest on August 14, the U.S. and global media have had a field day portraying the evacuation as President Joe Biden’s “Saigon” moment—a fiasco for the administration, the nation, and the world.
The New York Times’ David Sanger wrote the pullout was “a humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan.” CNN’s Peter Bergen said that “Biden is presiding over a debacle entirely of his own making.” Tucker Carlson of Fox News opined that Biden is “not capable of running the country.”
By all accounts, it’s reasonable for most Americans to assume this hastily arranged pullout has been an unmitigated disaster. To be sure, the Taliban has already taken over large swaths of Afghanistan, with devastating consequences for the Afghan people, especially women and girls. The scenes around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul have been heartbreaking. The videos of Afghans clinging to U.S. military transport planes and falling to their deaths were a horrible bookend to the memories of people falling or jumping from the burning upper floors of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11—the event that propelled the U.S. into the war 20 years ago.
But that same media coverage has also overshadowed and under-covered the remarkable achievements of the U.S. military in executing an unprecedented international airlift to save Americans, NATO allies, Afghan partners, and their families. U.S. forces and coalition flights have evacuated well over 100,000 people since the evacuation began at the end of July, most of whom are Afghans who helped our soldiers over the last two decades.
Of course, there are questions that still need to be answered about the execution of the pullout—it’s an utter tragedy that this decades-long war ends with the Taliban taking control of the country in just a matter of days as the U.S. leaves—but the military is doing an exceptional job. Despite the hysteria in news accounts and the handwringing by politicians and some allied leaders, a mission like this one isn’t won or lost in a single news cycle. To paraphrase the often-misquoted quip famously attributed to Mark Twain about reports of his death being “greatly exaggerated”: The media frenzy to claim that Biden and the U.S. military had failed their mission, before it was fully mounted, is likewise proving overblown.
Despite a dip in Biden’s approval ratings, polls continue to show that far more Americans continue to back the pullout than oppose it. In all likelihood, months or years from now, most Americans will be grateful for Biden ending the nation’s “forever war.” And they will have the U.S. military to thank for the job it has done in recent weeks under nearly impossible circumstances. In fact, it’s hard to fathom any scenario under which a withdrawal of our troops from the country would not be tumultuous and messy. As of this writing, at least 13 U.S. service members were killed and 15 wounded, along with more than 90 Afghan civilians, when two explosions went off Thursday outside the airport, according to the U.S. CENTCOM commander, Marine Corps General Kenneth Mackenzie. As has been said, there is no pretty way to lose a war.
As a longtime foreign correspondent observing U.S. servicemen and women in faraway conflicts, I have seen humanitarian and conflict operations that might have seemed chaotic to the outside eye, but that produced successful results, which is why so much of the criticism from major global media has been so premature.
In Panama City streets, I saw U.S. forces work to topple a dictator in late 1989, but it took time, and U.S. troops had to deal with hostage-taking; burning and looting in the streets; firefights that killed well over 400 bystanders, including at least three American civilians; and a manhunt for General Manuel Antonio Noreiga, who had fled. At least 23 U.S. military members died and 314 were wounded before the situation was contained and Noreiga surrendered on January 3, 1990. I embedded with the Air Force pool in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a conflict that took 39 days of bombing before U.S. forces went in on the ground to oust Iraq from Kuwait. In 1992, I came ashore with the Marines on a humanitarian mission in Somalia, where clan warfare had led to famine. Marines exposed themselves to sniper fire day and night in a lawless society to bring some semblance of security to desperate Somalis. Over time, they managed to distribute needed food to a starving country–at least at first, before the situation deteriorated.
Similarly, the Afghan pullout began with bedlam, but the world is now witnessing American forces carry out a wildly challenging mission with power and efficiency. In just the 10 days ending August 24th, the U.S. had evacuated more than 70,000 people out of the country, despite the Taliban patrolling the airport perimeter and what Biden called the “acute and growing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K.” Meanwhile, Biden said the United States is on track for completing the mission by an August 31 deadline, provided the security conditions remain constant.
Biden came into office with more foreign policy experience than any president in three decades. In some ways, that experience might have worked against him. His absolute confidence in the rightness of his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan may have clouded his judgment on planning the execution of that exit more wisely, deliberately, and carefully. But, in other and perhaps more profound ways, that experience has served him well, helping him to take the long view and ignore the inevitable backlash that would come from ending a war that much of the American political establishment has had a stake in for years.
Biden was right to call an end to the deployment in Afghanistan. It has cost the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. military members and trillions of taxpayer dollars. The U.S. should have started a pullout after completing the original mission to attack and degrade Al Qaeda and eliminate Osama Bin Laden. Nearly 20 years after the September 11 attacks, Biden showed courage in choosing not to pass the decision to end the war on to the next president and avoid international controversy.
Clearly, his administration will be judged on its failure to plan for a rapid collapse of a U.S.-backed government that its own people wouldn’t fight to defend. But the success of the withdrawal, overall, shouldn’t be judged based on what happens to Afghanistan once America leaves. The great failure happened two decades ago, when the George W. Bush administration undertook its misguided approach to nation-building in the Middle East.
Rather, success should be measured on whether the U.S. can continue to successfully evacuate Americans and our allies—and whether Biden can finally extract America from its longest war and allow the nation to move on. Ultimately, that could enable the U.S. to tackle new foreign policy priorities and help restore U.S. credibility and standing in the world.