As we watch the ongoing tragedy in Afghanistan, we wonder: What did the U.S. government think would happen when it withdrew troops and government supports from Afghanistan? Is it possible that with all the military planning that went into the withdrawal effort, no one predicted the resulting collapse and chaos whose searing images now haunts us?

President Joe Biden was unquestionably correct in observing that the United States could not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. But the weighty decision to withdraw was only the first step in what should have been a carefully orchestrated process that enabled departure with dignity and fulfillment of our promises. That’s not what happened. And it is shocking that the administration appears to have been taken off guard by the speed, intensity and relentlessness with which the Taliban advanced and overtook every village and opportunity in its march toward Kabul.

While it appears that virtually all Americans will get out of Afghanistan, that isn’t enough. There are still the tens of thousands of Afghans and their families whom we asked for support and promised to help and protect, who have been left to fend for themselves. The impact of U.S. betrayal of those left behind is devastating to our nation’s credibility.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this shameful moment. Among them is that it’s time to discard the notion that America is the world’s policeman. We’re not. That doesn’t mean we can’t support nations who ask for and appreciate our help, such as Germany, South Korea or Kuwait. But we don’t belong in places that don’t want us. The chaos throughout Afghanistan is a stark reminder that it is near impossible to police populations that don’t want to be policed.

In addition, we need to take a hard look at the self-righteous pursuit of nation-building. And we should stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we can succeed in imposing our brand of government on societies who aren’t interested in it. Our track record in pursuit of that goal is unimpressive. Our failure in Afghanistan is embarrassing.

The horrifying images of Afghan citizens clutching the landing gear of departing airplanes only to plunge to their deaths is eerily reminiscent of the thousands of South Vietnamese who tried without success to board U.S. helicopters in 1975, hours before the fall of Saigon. The tragic scenes from Kabul are a reenactment of that nightmare.

Our military spent two decades in Afghanistan. During that miserable occupancy — which cost so much American blood and treasure — there was plenty of time to develop an orderly plan for withdrawal and departure that protected our troops, our citizens and our in-country friends. If there was such a plan and it was followed, it failed.

Our nation’s attention span is, unfortunately, remarkably short. We will grieve Afghanistan until the next disaster distracts us. Nonetheless, we hope that the haunting images of our botched withdrawal inspire our military and political leaders to do everything possible to assure we don’t make such mistakes again. JN