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America’s Withdrawal of Choice

The swift fall of Kabul recalls the ignominious fall of Saigon in 1975. Beyond the local consequences – widespread reprisals, harsh repression of women and girls, and massive refugee flows – America’s strategic and moral failure in Afghanistan will reinforce questions about US reliability among friends and foes alike.

NEW YORK – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country. His government has collapsed as Taliban fighters enter Kabul. Bringing back memories of the ignominious fall of Saigon in 1975, two decades of America’s military presence in Afghanistan has vanished in a matter of weeks. How did it come to this?

There are wars of necessity, including World War II and the 1990-91 Gulf War. These are wars in which military force is employed because it is deemed to be the best and often only way to protect vital national interests. There also are wars of choice, such as the Vietnam and 2003 Iraq wars, in which a country goes to war even though the interests at stake are less than vital and there are nonmilitary tools that can be employed.

Now, it seems, there are also withdrawals of choice, when a government removes troops that it could have left in a theater of operation. It does not withdraw troops because their mission has been accomplished, or their presence has become untenable, or they are no longer welcomed by the host government. None of these conditions applied to the situation the United States found itself in Afghanistan at the start of President Joe Biden’s administration. Withdrawal was a choice, and, as is often true of wars of choice, the results promise to be tragic.

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