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After the defeat of the Taliban regime by U.S. forces in November 2001 Taliban leaders offered to surrender peacefully in exchange for amnesty. Had the United States accepted the terms of the Taliban's surrender instead of insisting, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, "We don't negotiate surrender," and demanding Taliban members be captured, imprisoned or put to death,
Unless the Taliban opted to flout the terms of their surrender and continued to hide out, regroup, recruit, grow, and keep fighting anyway.
Spending twenty years and $300 million dollars a day trying to transform a tribal, disparate, geographically rugged country like Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy now looks like a fool's errand. Except that in those twenty years of American occupation of Afghanistan the citizens of that country gained access to internet, iPhones, social media and news outlets. A whole generation of young Afghans grew up in a society with some degree of civil liberties, especially women and girls,
Is Afghanistan's past under Taliban rule to be its future under Taliban rule? Or will the modernization and liberation of Afghan society that was achieved by twenty years of American protection and defense ultimately force the Taliban to bend? And what presence, if any, will terrorist groups have under the new Taliban regime?
How long after that day in October of 2001 when U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan did it become clear to those with knowledge of such matters that withdrawing those troops would be disastrous? Was it clear after five years? Ten years? Was it clear soon after the day George W. Bush started the war? Or just two weeks ago when Joe Biden ended it? Did Obama know, and is that why he avoided bringing American troops home after their mission of killing Osama Bin Laden was accomplished? Did Donald Trump know, and is that why he and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated with Taliban leaders (but not with the leaders of the Afghan government) a withdrawal, the terms of which required the United States to concede everything but required nothing of the Taliban in return - not the continuation of Afghan women's rights, not safe passage out of the country for citizens, not the return of American military equipment - nothing, except the Taliban allowing the retreat of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?
Did Joe Biden lie awake at night knowing that his decision to be the one to bring American troops home from Afghanistan and finally end this forever war could be politically disastrous for him? What voice told him that it fell to him to accomplish this mission?
Today there are only two things that are unequivocally true about Afghanistan.
The first is that there was no way the United States could have saved this country single-handedly, and the abandonment of the Afghan people by both their government and their military guaranteed that the evacuations would play out at least as badly as they are at this moment, if not worse. On the other hand, if it were the Afghan army surrounding Kabul airport instead of the Taliban soldiers, the scenes we would be seeing from that place would be much different.
And the second thing is that twenty years later it is the Taliban who now have the option of saying to the United States, "We don't negotiate surrender."