National Opinions

We’ve always known this moment would come in Afghanistan

“Some Americans who pushed toward the bus tried to pull their Vietnamese wives and children along with them. ... There were desperate scenes of families separated and crying out for help, pleading not to be left behind, clutching at the last straw of hope.”

Many Americans of my generation will recall that April 30, 1975, “CBS Evening News” report, filed by correspondent Ed Bradley, on the evacuation that was unfolding as North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon.

Some viewers might have looked on in horror, others in sadness, shame or even anger at scenes of Vietnamese trying to scale the walls of the U.S. Embassy — helicopters landing on the roof and inside the compound — people waiting to be evacuated to the decks of ships stationed off the Vietnamese coast.

But there it was before our eyes: After so many bloody, life-draining and U.S.-treasury-depleting years, the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was ending, even, as Bradley reported, as fleeing helicopters plunged into water, Vietnamese pilots leaped out of aircraft, people swam for boats.

Today’s generation of Americans might hope to be spared the sight of the fall of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. They might pray that they won’t have to bear witness to Afghan throngs desperately looking for a way out of their country, as South Vietnamese desperately scrambled for a way out of theirs 46 years ago.

But are Kabul’s final days just ahead?

Some of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals are toppling like dominoes at the flick of a Taliban offensive. The timing for the possible fall of the Afghan capital has been revised downward to one to three months, according to a U.S. military intelligence assessment. Americans are being told to clear out “immediately” the best way they can. Officially, the U.S. military departure is scheduled for Aug. 31, but most forces are already gone.

The evacuation is underway, even as the Biden administration cobbles together an amalgam of international actors to try to dissuade the Taliban from pursuing a military victory that might be its for the taking.

We had to know this day was coming. That longest armed conflict in U.S. history was a war that never was the United States’ to win. Losses sustained: more than 2,300 Americans dead, more than 20,000 wounded in action, nearly $1 trillion gone.

And most of us were along for the disaster.

We were there when President Barack Obama, succumbing to pressure from the military and his own indecision, announced a troop surge into Afghanistan in 2009. “After 18 months,” he declared, “our troops will begin to come home.”

I wrote at the time that the Obama administration “would have us believe that in all of a year and a half, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be mobilized and sent to Afghanistan, where they will join other forces and in that time deny al-Qaeda a haven, reverse the Taliban’s momentum and reduce its ability to overthrow the Afghanistan government, strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces so they can fend for themselves and stabilize neighboring Pakistan.”

It didn’t happen. We saw the outcome unfold in real time. Afghan security forces didn’t fend for themselves, and the Taliban kept on taking territory and lives. In May 2014, Obama took to the White House Rose Garden to announce, “now we’re finishing the job we started,” promising to reduce U.S. forces by the end of the year and declaring the United States’ military commitment would be over by the close of 2016 — except it wasn’t.

In his book “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of War,” The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock wrote, “In Washington, fears rose that the Afghan government was at risk of a political breakdown. Calling the situation ‘precarious,’ Obama reversed himself again in July 2016.”

“Instead of drawing down to 5,500 troops as planned, he ordered more U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan. By the time he left the White House in January 2017, about 8,400 troops remained.”

As it was through all of that, so it is now — an Afghan government enamored with holding power but lacking the resolve to mobilize the people and organize disparate and competing groups to defend and protect their own country, including women, without the aid of U.S. money and warm, well-armed American bodies.

None of this is in retrospect. I wrote about Obama’s Afghanistan zigzags, his decisions-by-increments, and Afghan weaknesses, as well as President Donald Trump’s bluster and flip-flopping, as they unfolded.

I look back with regret that my voice was too insignificant, and my misgivings perhaps too muted or understated, to make a difference in this gargantuan U.S. military failure. But, with the end near, still some voices cry out — give Afghanistan a little more time; a bit more air cover; a fresh team of advisers; just a little more time.

Shades of the flight from Vietnam, The Post reports that Afghan migrants have flooded neighboring countries in recent days — to try to make their way to Europe.

To survive the Taliban, Afghanistan would have to become the site of a well-equipped and strategically located U.S. military base with a long-term lease.

But as with Vietnam, a weak and unstable Afghan government can only make tragedy, disaster and American losses worse.

Colbert I. “Colby” King is a columnist for the Washington Post. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. King joined the Post’s editorial board in 1990 and served as deputy editorial page editor from 2000 to 2007.

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