After more than 20 years, $2 trillion and 2,000 American lives lost, withdrawing our combat troops from Afghanistan was the right policy decision.

But an organized and orderly withdrawal could have been achieved by competent leadership.

Many who advised against withdrawal are in the middle of a told-you-so tour, claiming that the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is proof of why our forces should have remained. I believe the opposite to be true.

The most obvious evidence that it was time to withdraw from Afghanistan is found in the fact that after more than two decades and $2 trillion, we were not able to train or prepare an Afghan force that could fight for even 90 hours before losing control of their entire nation. 

After 20 years of sacrificing blood and treasure — all toward a mission in which we no longer know what success even looks like — what do we have to show for it? The answer is tragic, but undeniable: A government that collapsed in mere days.

Every year, security in the region was getting worse, not better. Every year, resentment and anger at the U.S. presence was growing. Every year, we sacrificed American lives for two nations that have a seeming inability, and in some instances a proven disinterest, in securing their own future. 

To those who criticize my position, I would ask: How many more years would you keep us in combat? What is your measure of success? How do you achieve that? At what cost? How many American lives are you willing to risk? And what is the benefit to our nation?

Perhaps even more importantly, every precious life, military asset and dollar we spend in the region makes us less able to counter the far more strategic challenges we face around the world. This is particularly important today, as China and Russia continue to grow stronger and bolder in challenging our place as the global superpower. 

But the ongoing catastrophe in Afghanistan was entirely avoidable and is a blatant failure of leadership — by both President Joe Biden and the Pentagon. Allowing weapons, helicopters, classified material and ammunition to fall into the hands of the Taliban is inexcusable. Not being able to defend our own embassy is a disgrace. Leaving the Afghan soldiers and interpreters who fought beside us to fend for themselves is incomprehensible. 

Competent military leadership could have withdrawn our forces in an orderly fashion, creating benchmarks and priorities that would have prevented the current situation. Neither the president nor the Pentagon did any of that. 

Our first priority should have been the withdrawal of all civilians and allies — those who sacrificed everything to work with us — before the withdrawal of American fighting forces. This administration did exactly the opposite, leaving those civilians in grave danger. Second, we should have actively and aggressively deterred the Taliban from threatening our allies throughout this process, drawing clear red lines and then holding them accountable, even personally accountable, when necessary. (The Taliban leaders understood the lesson from Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.)

We also should have ensured that we left no military equipment or classified material behind. But, perhaps most obviously, we should have kept secret the date of our withdrawal. Biden did not just fail in each of these apparent objectives — he did the exact opposite. 

Just days ago, Biden assured the American people that the withdrawal was going as planned, and that the Afghan army was well equipped, prepared and able to defend its country. We now know that everything he said was untrue. Did the generals mislead Biden and the American people, or were they simply — and historically — incompetent?

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As someone who served in the armed forces for 14 years, watching our military leaders fail to this extent is beyond disheartening. But, unfortunately, I cannot say that it is entirely surprising. For the past eight months, we have seen our generals express more concern about the “existential threats” of white rage and climate change than the combat mission at hand. We are seeing the results of that perverse prioritization.

It will take years to regain American credibility from this catastrophe, and our adversaries will certainly use it against us — look no further than China’s ongoing threats against Taiwan. It pains me to see a mistake of this magnitude, and I cannot in good conscious witness this level of failure without demanding accountability. Both Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley should recognize their failure and resign.

This catastrophe isn’t going to solve itself, and it’s becoming more difficult every day. Biden will need to admit his mistakes and form a new strategy. That means he will require sound, accurate guidance from America’s top military leaders. I have lost confidence in their ability to execute those duties, and I have no doubt that many of my fellow Americans feel the same.

Rep. Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.

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