Today marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. For those of us who have deployed to Afghanistan, it is a moment of reflection to see what lessons we have learned. Despite the fact that the events have proved a watershed moment (no matter how you define it), it appears that no lessons have been learned to date, and few if any changes have been made in the framework for decisions made. It is even unclear whether voters have learned anything from it. There are, nevertheless, several lessons that we ought to apply.
In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, ending the 20-year war. He predicted at the time that it was unlikely Afghanistan would fall or that there would be a Saigon moment of U.S. forces fleeing the country. Both predictions proved false as the Taliban quickly gained control of the country due to Afghanistan forces folding. On August 18, 2021, the Taliban seized Kabul, leading to the chaotic evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies. Although the U.S. military heroically carried out one of the most successful evacuation missions in history, the final moments of our involvement in Afghanistan were tarnished by the victory of the Taliban, the death of 13 service members from continued terrorist attacks, and hundreds of people and millions of dollars of equipment left behind.
However one defines it, the retreat from Afghanistan was a turning point. It was a political turning point – the president’s approval rating, which had been relatively high at the time, dropped six points overnight and has continued to decline. More than half of people polled disapproved of the way the U.S. left, and an equal number continue to disapprove of current U.S. foreign policy. It was a diplomatic turning point. Many point to incursions by Russia and China as being a result of their perceptions of U.S. weaknesses or untrustworthiness, which U.S. allies continue to express after not being consulted in advance of the decision to withdraw. Some have even seen it as a turning point in world history, arguing it demonstrates the decline of U.S. world leadership and more broadly western dominance. The withdrawal was also a turning point among Enduring Freedom veterans and the U.S. military in general. More than 70 percent of veterans believe the U.S. did not withdraw honorably and report feeling “angry,” “betrayed,” or “humiliated.” As a result, many veterans have retired at a time when recruiting is down. If parallels are drawn with Vietnam, the psychological implications will be felt far into the future as the U.S. struggles with morale and its own image in the world.
One would think we would be trying to learn all we can from this failure, but despite the momentous events of the withdrawal, there has yet to be a full public review of the events or a major effort to hold anyone accountable. While the Army conducted a lengthy investigation, the president rejected key findings. There have been after action reports conducted by military units, but no major recommendations have publicly emerged that correct the decisions leading to the disaster. The administration itself has not published any official report, as though everything went according to plan. Congressional inquiries have been brief and limited mainly to the minority party. Possibly more reports are coming, but the delay has had enormous impact on morale and foreign policy. No one has taken responsibility or borne the blame, with most blaming others. No one stepped down in shame for the perceived failure. No known intelligence or military personnel have been fired. This would suggest that there have been no lessons learned, no changes made in U.S. policy, no adjustments in the personnel who made the key decisions about the withdrawal. It is not even clear if voters learned anything. We won’t know for another two months whether the debacle will change how people vote.
Nevertheless, there are lessons we ought to learn. One is that the war in Afghanistan was worthwhile. How many of us believe that, if the U.S. had not intervened, there would have been no further attacks on the U.S.? We maintained U.S. security for nearly two decades because the U.S. military pursued terrorists wherever they arose. Veterans ought to feel proud that they contributed to the safety of their homes. Another lesson is that the U.S. military still plays a key role in the world. The recent strike against Al Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahri in Kabul, while widely praised, has demonstrated that terrorists have regained a foot in the country. How many believe this would have been possible if the U.S. and its allies had maintained a nominal presence in Afghanistan and continued to support the local government? The vacuum created whenever we withdraw from regions ought to demonstrate the importance the U.S. continues to play on the world stage. A third lesson is that national service remains important. What will our Army look like if no one joins? Will the U.S. be able to continue intervening in world affairs if the Army declines to only a few hundred thousand? Will we be able to maintain peace and protect the homeland for much longer? Such questions ought to stir us to become more involved in serving the nation, both through military and government service.
There are, of course, other lessons we could learn. Many are political, diplomatic, or historical. It is possible that future reviews may better address these. More important in the short-term is to recognize the importance of military service. It is what kept our nation safe for two decades, and what will keep us safe in the future. Service is good, and it is only by people being willing to serve that we are able to maintain our safety and way of life. Unless we want to see extremists gain a foothold here as they have in Afghanistan, someone must be willing to protect our people. If not us, who?
© 2022 J.D. Manders