Eli Lake

Can America Learn From Its Defeat in Afghanistan?

For a brief moment last month, amid the chaotic and tragic final days of America’s longest war, it looked as if a Democratic Congress would perform honest oversight of a Democratic administration. The chasm between the reality on the ground and the rhetoric from the White House was too wide.

It didn’t last long. As oversight hearings began this week, Congress fell back into largely partisan camps. Democrats want to spread the blame around, as shown by the very title of Monday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing: “Afghanistan 2001-2021: Evaluating the Withdrawal and US Policies.” The message is clear. Don’t blame President Joe Biden for losing an unwinnable war.

Republicans aren’t much better. Too many want to forget the treacherous negotiations with the Taliban conducted by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump himself even issued a statement blaming former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners in 2020. Not mentioned was that Ghani did so at the behest of Trump’s own envoy.

The failure thus far of congressional oversight is not surprising. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Serious members of Congress should create an independent, bipartisan commission to examine the failures of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That commission should examine four distinct sets of questions: who and how many Afghans and Americans were left behind; whether intelligence about the resilience of Afghanistan’s government and army was ignored or useless; why the US military abandoned Bagram Airbase before American civilians were out of the country; and what role Pakistan’s military played in the Taliban’s successful campaign to topple Afghanistan’s elected government.

The value of an independent commission is that it would offer some insulation from the daily pressures of Washington politics. If its members included such figures as former Secretary of Defense and CIA chief Leon Panetta, or former Missouri Representative and Senator Jim Talent, there would be less of a temptation to use hearings as a platform to create viral videos. Such a commission would also have the time to sort through the blame game already unfolding not only between the parties but also among the military, intelligence and diplomatic communities.

Of course, the main way the American public holds its president accountable is through the ballot box. But that election is three years away. In the meantime, an Afghanistan Defeat Commission could establish facts on which voters could make judgments.

Those facts are currently in short supply. The first round of hearings in Congress were little more than an exercise in buck-passing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken still says he considers last month’s airlift a great success, and wouldn’t give a straight answer on whether the administration is bribing the Taliban with promises of aid and recognition to allow the remaining US citizens and Afghan allies to safely leave.

The US will be suffering the consequences of its defeat in Afghanistan for years. It has already paid a price in global reputation, among both allies and adversaries. If recent warnings are correct, Afghanistan will soon become a safe haven for international terrorism yet again. An independent commission would give future presidents a chance to learn from this blunder, and citizens a chance to hold their current leaders accountable.