The higher levels of Afghanistan’s military leadership failed, too. They obviously did not prepare a competent fighting force. Their corruption certainly helped with that—some frontline personnel had not been paid in months, and many lacked supplies. Yet they also failed to deploy what they had well. All of Afghanistan’s major cities fell in a matter of days because the Taliban had methodically cut them off, one by one, in the preceding weeks and months. The Afghan military lost everything because it had tried to hold too much.
Afghanistan’s political leaders deserve the blame most of all. They oversaw all of this, and their venality, selfishness, and incompetence undercut support for the government.
This cuts into a set of deeper moral issues for the United States. It is right for us to wish the people of other lands well and at times to help them. Indifference would be a failure of solidarity—a denial of our common humanity. But a solidarity-only ethic denies subsidiarity. Humans are not abstractions—rational souls floating in the void. We are incarnate. We live in particular times, places, and cultures. These particularities impose duties on us—to our family and polity—that are more immediate than our duties to humanity at large. It is natural and just that Americans rushed to enlist after Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and not after, say, the fall of Mekelle or Kilinochchi. The Afghan state and its security forces bore the same duties to Afghanistan—duties they abandoned. Thus President Joe Biden’s statement Monday: “It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.”
Behind all this, we must remember that the United States went to Afghanistan in the first place because we were victims. The de facto government of Afghanistan hosted a notorious international terrorist group. That group then killed thousands within the United States. We drove out this government and replaced it with a better one. We then spent nearly two decades strengthening the new government and providing reconstruction aid. We sacrificed thousands of our troops’ lives. We went above and beyond any reasonable duty that could be imposed on a victim of aggression. Was Abyssinia obliged to rebuild post-Mussolini Italy? How many decades of support did China owe post-Imperial Japan?
The moral stain of Afghanistan’s chaos does splatter us. Yet continuing the conflict had moral costs of its own. Withdrawal critics have often ignored or downplayed these costs, but thanks to the withdrawal, these are costs the United States will no longer pay.
John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society.