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[Trudy Rubin] After Afghan failure, what is America prepared to fight for now?

As the news shifts, many Americans may think the Afghan war is over.

Not so. The searing scenes of Kabul’s fall are having a powerful impact on America’s global image, including the abandonment of Afghan allies.

Chinese and Russian propaganda outlets are gleefully trumpeting scenes of America’s “defeat.” NATO allies who had troops in Afghanistan are bitter that they were forced to leave Afghan staff and their own nationals -- because President Joe Biden didn’t consult them.

And the final US defeat -- set in motion by former President Donald Trump’s surrender treaty with the Taliban and finalized by Biden’s exit -- raises questions about whom and what the US is willing to fight for.

The Biden team needs to look far deeper than the defensive justifications that the president and top officials have been presenting in public. Following are some of the questions I believe should top the list.

Why was the exit from Kabul so disastrous?

Whether or not you think Biden should have pulled out US troops, this question must be dissected. White House efforts to spin the US military’s herculean last-minute efforts cannot obscure the fact of Taliban victory.

(And the Republican Party’s hysteria over the chaotic exit is totally hypocritical given Trump’s aborted efforts to schedule sudden pullouts before leaving office, and his disastrous US pullout from the Syrian border with Turkey.)

The evacuation chaos has fed a perception by allies and enemies of US incompetence that started with Trump over COVID-19 failures, and has been advanced by conservatives’ vaccine refusal and global warming denial. Now the messy exit from Kabul is added to the evidence list.

How could US intelligence have failed so badly -- when the string of Taliban victories after Biden’s withdrawal announcement in mid-April was so unrelenting? Was this a case of White House willful blindness (like George W. Bush in Iraq), or of bureaucratic blundering?

Despite Biden’s praise of the 300,000-strong Afghan army, the Defense Department knew these numbers were inflated, and the army’s morale was crashing.

In 2009, I watched NATO trainers struggle on the vast and desolate grounds of the Kabul Military Training Center at the outskirts of the city. Seventy percent of the recruits couldn’t read. And new Afghan soldiers told me frankly that they hated M-16s because they needed so much maintenance, whereas Soviet-era AK-47s were far more dependable.

Washington trained an army to US standards, including an air force that needed US maintenance. US military officials warned repeatedly that the Afghan air force -- critical to support its ground troops -- would collapse if Washington pulled all troops out.

Surely the State Department and the National Security Council knew these facts, yet the White House was caught flat-footed by the Taliban as we exited. Why?

What are Americans now prepared to fight for?

“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden told Americans. Fair enough. Clearly, nation-building, and democracy-building, haven’t gone well in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But has the White House faced the consequences of that admission? The president champions democratic values in contrast to the authoritarianism of China and Russia. How does this square with abandoning the Afghan women activists, journalists and human rights workers who adopted those values?

And what about USAID, the American aid agency that threw so much money into culturally inappropriate and corruption-ridden projects in Afghanistan. How will that be reformed?

Where and when will America be willing to use military force in the future?

Any “over-the-horizon” efforts to prevent the Taliban from hosting terrorist groups aren’t likely to be successful: We now have no US or Afghan eyes on the ground, and the nearest US bases are many hours away.

And, after the fall of Kabul, our allies in Europe, the Mideast and Asia are asking whether we still have their backs against Russia, Iran and China. “They are so happy in Moscow,” I was told by independent Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats from Moscow. “State propaganda media are claiming that America not only lost the war but left everyone who trusted them behind.”

China’s state media is also busy hammering on the trust issue, especially toward Taiwan. “How many lives of US troops and how many dollars would the US sacrifice for the Island of Taiwan?” asked China’s Global Times. “The US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan … has dealt a heavy blow to the credibility and reliability of the US.”

During her visit to Singapore in late August, Vice President Kamala Harris accused China of “intimidation” in the South China Sea and asserted that the US “stands with our allies and our partners.” Does it? Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei need reassurance, along with South Asian allies.

Can America rebuild its image?

For moral and geopolitical reasons, the White House needs to demonstrate that it won’t abandon American citizens and allies in Afghanistan. They are now virtual hostages, and the Taliban will demand economic prizes. But who trusts an ally who leaves its friends and citizens behind?

The White House also needs to remove its own blinders, and squarely face the causes and consequences of the Kabul debacle. Only then can it begin to convince the world that this was not one more step toward America’s inevitable decline.

Trudy Rubin
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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