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As the images of chaos at Afghanistan’s main airport looped on the news channels, “disaster” quickly became the favored word of commentators, followed by “disgrace.” What we saw was disturbing, especially the evidence that U.S. forces hadn’t secured the airport early on.
But 20 years after the U.S. first sent its soldiers to police the country and spent billions arming a huge Afghan army — a force that quickly melted away — Americans saw their country finally getting out of an impossible mission, that of transforming a very foreign political culture to our liking. The audience at home did not share the unhappiness expressed by experts on TV criticizing what they saw on TV.
Everyone saw the hundreds of Afghans running on the tarmac. They heard commentators opining with no information that the mob was all frightened Afghans who had helped the U.S. But some could have been using the confu- sion to immigrate to a better life in America. Some could have been slipped into the crowds by terrorist organizations. No one then knew.
And if, in the middle of the craziness, someone clings to the bottom of a packed U.S. military cargo plane as it takes off — and that person falls to earth — what are we supposed to do about that?
Since then, the optics haven’t been all bad. Hundreds of Afghanis gath- ered in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and other cities to protest the radical Islamist takeover, and the Taliban responded with vio- lence. In the end, though, this is the Afghans’ fight.
America’s presence did give women 20 years of rel- ative freedom. We learn that some are now buying up burqas but also that other brave women are ven- turing onto the streets with uncovered faces.
Afghans facing the Taliban on their streets without an American escort is a good thing. Also potentially positive are signs that the Taliban may want the world to see them as less monstrous than before. America’s job now is to ensure that they don’t again send terrorists their way.
This can be done through intelligence. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told the media, we are already deal- ing with the threat of ter- rorism in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and across the Islamic Maghreb, “without sustaining a permanent military presence.”
Media pests, meanwhile, were demanding apologies to liven their chyrons. “Will you publicly disclose what went wrong?” one journalist asked. No, the U.S. is not going to issue a what-went- wrong report, Sullivan responded, but it is going to look at “everything that happened.”
Another reporter asked, “Will the U.S. government commit to ensuring that any Americans that are currently on the ground in Afghanistan get out?” It can sure try, but how many American soldiers’ lives are you going to risk searching remote mountain villages for U.S. nationals?
A dumb foreign journal- ist asked, “How can you just claim to be a global leader without making sac- rifice?” Sullivan showed great self-control in noting that 2,448 Americans had lost their lives and many thousands more were injured in Afghanistan, and the United States has spent more than $1 trillion there. There’s been much simple-minded lumping of the evacuation from Kabul with that from Saigon in 1975. There was a big difference: Americans were obsessed with the war in Vietnam. They hardly thought about Afghanistan.
The recent exit has been painful, as evacuations tend to be. But claims that it cost America “credibility” — that it was a “betrayal” that will “live in infamy” (George Packer at The Atlantic) — can be ignored.
Most Americans under- stand that trying to redo the politics of this very dif- ferent place has been mis- sion impossible. For them, this withdrawal was not a foreign policy calamity. It was a relief.