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President Joe Biden walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Aug. 10, 2021, after returning aboard Marine One from a long weekend in Delaware. His decision to withdraw abruptly from Afghanistan is spreading doubt once again about America's resolve in backing its allies.PETE MAROVICH/The New York Times News Service

Already the question is echoing through the halls of Congress and the studios of cable news, heading swiftly for the faculty lounge:

Who lost Afghanistan?

That question itself is an echo. For a generation Americans fought over the question of “Who lost China?” after the Communists swept to power in 1949. Those three weaponized words provided fodder for the accusations of senator Joseph McCarthy; ruined the careers of figures such as the scholar Owen Lattimore, whom the Wisconsin Republican described as “the architect of our Far Eastern policy”; brought Richard Nixon into national prominence for the first time; defined foreign policy debates in Congress and in political contests for three decades; and then spilled over into a yeasty question for historians.

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But in a way there is a simple answer to the question about who lost Afghanistan.

Everybody did. The British did in the 19th century. The Russians did in the 20th century. For a brief while the Taliban did in the 21st century. Now the Americans have.

There is a reason Afghanistan – often valued less as a destination than as a formidable mountainous byway to someplace, or something, else – is sometimes regarded as the graveyard of empires.

It is a place that in recent years has spawned a dozen notable books, the titles of which themselves tell the country’s story. For centuries, Afghanistan has been less a venue of A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini, 2007) than a place whose history more nearly resembles a land where hopes are Born Under a Million Shadows (Andrea Busfield, 2009), because waves of outsiders have never been able to discover anything resembling the title of An Unexpected Light (Jason Elliot, 1999).

Despite the shared nature of successive big-power debacles in Afghanistan, a debate is already raging in the United States about this most recent loss. At the centre of it are the two principal figures of every contemporary American debate, Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden.

Their debate is over a war supported in large measure by Barack Obama, who dispatched an additional 17,000 troops to join the 36,000 already in the country, and begun by George W. Bush, who warned that Operation Enduring Freedom, as the original engagement was called, would entail “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”

Both combatants in the bitter 2020 election vowed to leave Afghanistan this year – Mr. Trump in the spring, Mr. Biden in late summer. In mid-April Mr. Trump praised the announcement of an American withdrawal, calling it “a wonderful and positive thing to do” – though he hastened to add that he wanted to do it more quickly than Mr. Biden’s deadline of Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York that spawned American involvement in Afghanistan.

“We can and should get out earlier,” Mr. Trump said. “Nineteen years is enough, in fact, far too much and way too long.” (This week he issued a statement saying he “personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable.”)

The Taliban is sweeping to power throughout Afghanistan, seizing major provinces and cities and putting the survival of the current government in jeopardy, if not imminently dooming it. This has prompted the United States to send 3,000 troops in to manage the orderly withdrawal of its citizens and diplomats, producing unsettling images redolent of the rooftop departure scene from its Saigon embassy in 1975 – a visual portrait of desperation that is seared in Americans’ collective imagery.

The answer to the question of “who lost Vietnam?” – a war prosecuted by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, with American involvement stretching from the administration of Dwight Eisenhower to Gerald Ford, producing particular agony for Lyndon B. Johnson and Mr. Nixon – might have been delivered in a long-forgotten hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations Committee. In that session, then secretary of state Henry Kissinger was asked whom was to blame for the tragedy. “I think, senator,” he said, “that when we assess the history of our involvement in South Vietnam there is enough blame to go around.”

That may be the eventual answer to the Afghanistan question.

“There will be that debate, and sadly a lot of innocent people are dying right now,” Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Marine who won the Bronze Star for valour in Iraq combat, said in an interview. “But the blame goes through many administrations.”

This is the kind of debate cable news loves. “Fox News will make an effort to slap this on Biden or on Obama before him,” said David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “But it may not take hold with the American people. It is distant, it is complicated and there are loads of villains.”

Even so, the Who Lost Afghanistan debate has already begun, with its eerie resemblance to the China debate that preoccupied and in some measures contaminated American politics for decades.

“The tragedy which has been repeated again and again in American history is to overzealously immerse ourselves in our domestic partisan interactions,” said U.S. Naval Academy historian Maochun Miles Yu. He argued in an interview Friday that the Who Lost China debate “was more about American domestic policy and American partisan comfort than conditions in China”

In time, the same might be said about the drama unfolding now, nearly 11,000 kilometres from Washington.

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