Already Republicans blame President Biden for withdrawing from Afghanistan. They hope to win next year’s midterms, but it might not work, as few Americans want to stay longer in Afghanistan. We could easily be there another 20 years and still get the same lousy result.

We were blind to the great underlying problem: Afghanistan is not a country. It never unified tribes divided by ethnicity, religion and language. It was tolerably calm under the long reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah (1933–73), who began modernizing his isolated kingdom. This, however, brought out new forces, Communists among them, that overthrew him in a coup.

The Communists seized power in 1978 but were divided into two hostile factions. The Soviets invaded in 1979, shot the faction they disliked and installed the other one. Soon the Soviets were bogged down in endless civil war against mujahideen and, after 15,000 combat deaths, withdrew in 1989, the very year they also left their East Europe satellites.

A turning point came in 1986, when U.S. Stinger missiles forced Soviet helicopters to stand too far off to hit rebels. Aiding the rebels (but not very much) were the jihadists of Osama bin Laden, who set up a headquarters and training camp in Afghanistan.

When the Kabul regime refused to cough up bin Laden after 9/11, we invaded in October 2001. U.S. special forces brilliantly ousted the Taliban regime, but bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, which hid him for a decade. The Taliban regrouped and are now poised to regain control over most of Afghanistan.

The Taliban are not just jihadis; they are also Pashtuns, who account for 42% of Afghans and have long seen themselves as the country’s rightful rulers. Their militant Islam is linked to Pashtun nationalism. A new Taliban regime will kill non-Pashtuns and educated women. They’re already doing it.

So, you want to stay and fight? Honor says we should, but 20 years of fighting warns us to get out, a view shared by most U.S. veterans, including several members of Congress. Casualties were not terribly high (2,400 combat dead) and almost nil recently. But DoD, in order to award Purple Hearts, had to keep listing Afghanistan as a war. No war, no Purple Hearts.

It’s been a frustrating 20 years. U.S. foreign aid was massively skimmed. Accounting controls were weak. Wrongdoing was covered up lest it undermine the host regimes. Government fighters surrendered and turned over their weapons to the attackers.

As with Saigon, we supplied too much money and manpower, creating dependencies that folded when we departed. They’ve got to do it themselves. And if they can’t, keep out.

What a mess! The tragedy is that Washington, in a rush to avenge 9/11, did not see that they would have to run a chaotic non-country. Specialists who knew better — in DoD, the Agency and State — were ignored. We followed the footsteps of Britain (three invasions) and Russia, supposing we’d succeed.

American rage over 9/11 was fully justified but could have been directed differently. Instead of invasion, we could have crippled al Qaeda and the Taliban regime by long-term economic measures, interdiction of heroin exports and Russian-style selective assassinations.

What happens next won’t be pretty. The Taliban, as before, have trouble establishing their rule in non-Pashtun areas. We can put the Taliban on notice that if they behave brutally, we will help those who resist them. We will soon have ample Afghan refugees — including translators and their families — to carry out covert actions. Pakistani supply routes are unreliable, but the ex-Soviet states to Afghanistan’s north, including Russia, fearing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, may help transit supplies, as they have done in the past.

India works in Afghanistan to offset Pakistan and curb Islamic extremism. Even Iran, if it abandoned its contrived hatred of America, has strong interests in opposing the Taliban, who murder Afghanistan’s Shia Hazaras. Since at least the 2014 eruption of ISIS, which massacred Iraqi Shias, the U.S. and Iran should have formed an alliance, but Tehran rejected the very notion.

We don’t have many good cards to play. Once we’re out, we’re really out. Will we learn anything from the Afghan misadventure? First, military power can’t solve all problems. Even talented diplomats — our Zalmay Khalilzad is Afghan-born and an ethnic Pashtun — can’t reverse deteriorating situations.

Want to blame someone? Blame Afghanistan for never having been a country. Political scientists see nations developing in uneven stages, all with much violence and backsliding. First, a strong monarch unifies the land by the sword. Kings then add administrators and rule of law to inculcate legitimacy and a common culture. Finally and only recently, nations develop some means of holding rulers accountable (i.e, democracy). These stages may take centuries and cannot be skipped or compressed. We get burned when we try.