Unless you’ve been under a rock the past few days, you saw the pictures: Armed Taliban members stomping through the streets of Kabul, thousands storming the airport as Americans fled, some desperate Afghanis clinging onto U.S. planes and eventually plunging to their deaths.
There was one take put forward by former President Donald Trump: “It’s not that we left Afghanistan. It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!”
Then there was President Joe Biden‘s defiant take: “I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
And then there was the take from former President George W. Bush, who started the war more than 20 years ago: “I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad,” he said even before the whole situation imploded.
Weirdly, they’re all right. It is, of course, well past time that we bailed from Afghanistan. In a country with more than 7,000 tribal leaders, separated by mountains and rivers, there is no winning. The Russians — like the Americans — learned this the hard way: They spent a decade there before and, as we just did, ended up slinking away with their tails between their legs.
So let’s take a look at the three takes.
1) Incompetent. Trump summed up the feelings of many Americans when he said it wasn’t that we left; it was the way we left. Despite Biden‘s announcement this spring that he‘d pull out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the worst terror attack against America — it certainly seemed as if there was no plan at all for how to do so smoothly and safely.
Biden this month declared that he‘d ramp up the withdrawal. Then, as things went bad, he announced he‘d send in 3,000 U.S. troops to keep things calm — then 5,000, then 6,000. The scene at the U.S. embassy devolved quickly, mirroring the disaster that was the American escape from Saigon during the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
The 78-year-old president clearly looked over his head. He never saw it coming. Here’s what he said just days ago: “We spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped, with modern equipment, over 300,000 Afghan forces, and Afghan leaders have to come together.”
“We lost thousands — lost death and injury, thousands of American personnel. They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
That didn’t happen — at all. The whole house of cards collapsed in days — and in the end, hours — with Afghani forces quickly laying down their arms, often without firing a shot.
2) Time to go. Biden cut short his vacation at Camp David (at least for a while, he headed straight back after giving a speech and taking no questions from the press) to address the debacle. While he sought to blame anything and anyone — from his predecessors to the weak Afghani forces (he had so recently boasted about) — he did make a Trumanesque declaration: “The buck stops with me.”
In a defiant speech, Mr. Biden made a sensible case for leaving Afghanistan once and for all.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy,” Mr. Biden said. “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”
Biden noted that four presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — have dealt with the conflict and stated, “I will not pass this responsibly on — responsibility on to a fifth president.”
The president even owned up to the pathetic way it all went down. “I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for President that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. And while it’s been hard and messy — and yes, far from perfect — I’ve honored that commitment.”
And he said one more thing that is clear to Americans: “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
3) The consequences. Former President Bush has the luxury of being far removed from the process (although liberals quickly pointed out the whole mess wasn’t Mr. Biden‘s or Mr. Trump‘s or former President Barack Obama’s fault, but rather Mr. Bush‘s).
And from that distant vantage point, Mr. Bush was able to see clearly what was coming. In July, as the withdrawal was imminent, he expressed fears for the fate of thousands of Afghan translators and their families, people who aided U.S. and NATO forces throughout the two-decade war effort.
“It seems like they’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people,” Mr. Bush said. “And it breaks my heart.”
Mr. Bush also said women and girls would suffer badly under the Taliban, which is already implementing hardline Islamic codes that deny them schooling and many other rights women worldwide enjoy. “Afghanistan women and girls will suffer unspeakable harm,” Mr. Bush said.
Here’s the thing: They’re all right. The withdrawal was an incompetent mess, but it was time to finally get out, yet the consequences will be devastating to those left behind.
Still, the most accurate take came from Mr. Biden — it IS time to go. Now, Afghanistan is the world’s problem. If foreign leaders truly care about what happens in Afghanistan — from the new leadership by the terrorist Taliban to the plight of women — they’ll step up and seek to help.
After an estimated cost of more than $6 trillion, America can no longer fight this war alone. In fact, we never should have.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.