The Biden administration is trying to deflect public attention from its needlessly rushed, chaotic and tragic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it may succeed. Afghanistan is far away, many Americans, mostly younger, have forgotten that we were there to prevent another 9/11, and there are issues closer to home that need attention.

Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down an airport runway in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16. Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of the airport, some so desperate to escape the Taliban capture of their country that they held on to the jet as it took off and plunged to death. Verified UGC via Associated Press

Nation building is always hard, and in a country like Afghanistan where there is no history of democracy, no institutions to support it, no well-developed societal preference for it and one segment adamantly opposed to it, the project is especially difficult. In 20 years it may be impossible. But it is a mistake to ignore the positive results of our involvement. We know that the Afghan government was inexperienced and often incompetent and that corruption was widespread. But it was democratically elected, and who knows how it might have developed.

There are fewer questions about the positive changes that have occurred in Afghan society, especially in urban areas. As usual, our nation building efforts included building roads, hospitals, schools and greatly improving other infrastructure. But the most important changes were the greater freedoms for ordinary Afghans, and especially for the female population. One of the emblematic images of the chaotic withdrawal is that of members of the Afghan women’s soccer team wading through a sewage canal in an effort to reach safety inside Kabul airport. Some made it, but not all.

USAID reports that in 2001, there were 900,000 Afghan children in school, all boys. In 2020, there were more than 9.5 million students, and 39 percent of them were girls. Twenty years ago there were no women’s soccer teams, no schools for girls and no women in the government. All of these things have come to pass as the result of the U.S. engagement, which changed the lives of a generation of young women, and young men. These hard-won gains are likely to be almost entirely reversed.

It is impossible to know with certainty that the American presence in Afghanistan has prevented another 9/11 attack. But the possibility that it has is significant, and our withdrawal heightens the risk of another attack. On Oct. 7, 2015, the late Sen. John McCain, who had personal experience in war and understood its consequences, told National Public Radio that in Afghanistan, you have two choices: “You either pull out, the way the president wants to do – and we’ve seen that movie before. Or you can have a certain level of involvement and engagement which, frankly, does not include a lot of American casualties because of the roles that they would play” – advising, training and supporting Afghan forces.

Ryan Crocker was our ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011-2012, and earlier to Pakistan and Iraq in a long and distinguished diplomatic career in Republican and Democratic administrations. In an Aug. 21 New York Times op-ed, he wrote: “Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.” He also noted: “As the enormity of the events in Afghanistan this past week sinks in, the questions start. … There is one overarching answer: our lack of strategic patience at critical moments, including from President Biden. … It has … flouted 20 years of work and sacrifice.”

In judging the merits of the withdrawal, there is the matter of renewed and increased future security risks in the U.S. There is the matter of improvements in living conditions and personal freedoms in Afghanistan, especially for women, which will almost surely be reversed. There is the matter of obligations to those who aided us at great risk and who we promised to protect but who have been left behind. There is the matter of honor, which a few Americans must still understand. All of these have been swept aside by the fact and manner of our craven capitulation.

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