America’s Afghan war is over but the battle for Biden’s legacy is only just beginning

(CNN)America’s chaotic, humiliating — yet, at times, heroic — final retreat from its defeat in Afghanistan will resonate for years after the last military jet lifted off from Kabul at 11:59 p.m. local time on Monday, ending the country’s longest war.

The departing troops left somewhere between 100 and 250 Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans entitled to protection from former US comrades and an entire nation to their fates under fundamentalist Taliban rule — along with an even more extreme faction of ISIS. For them, the “forever war” is far from over.

But any sense that the US is free of consequences of a war in which it bled for 20 years is belied by the history of a country that exacts a fierce price from its former occupiers. And the trauma of the two weeks since the fall of Kabul have already left an indelible mark on Joe Biden’s presidency, Washington’s bitter politics and the reputation of America among its disappointed allies.

Biden can lay claim to having the guts to finally end a war that had long been lost but outlived the presidencies of three predecessors. This may resonate more widely in the future among voters than the Beltway critics of his withdrawal may appreciate. And the crush of other domestic challenges, including a worsening pandemic, could soon redirect the rare spotlight from what was until a few months ago often referred to as the “forgotten war.”

But the pandemonium of the US retreat — a humbling exercise that confounded everything Biden promised about a stable, honorable US exit — stained the aura of competence he sold to the country in the last election and raised questions about his leadership, candor and capacity going forward to quell the nation’s multiple crises. While his defenders claim he was being unfairly blamed for two decades of strategic failures in Afghanistan, the President surely authored his own postscript of incompetence and didn’t predict the shockingly rapid collapse of the Afghan state and army.

The President will try to spin his own favorable retelling of the end of the war in an address to the nation Tuesday afternoon. But it was perhaps telling that he left it to Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who heads US Central Command, to announce the end of the war, and for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to address how the US would still seek to rescue the remaining Americans left behind. Biden, seeking to repair a self-styled reputation for a steady pair of hands, instead sat in front of a bank of TV monitors earlier in the day as he corralled local officials who were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

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