By Jennifer Rubin [August 29, 2021]
President Biden on Thursday mournfully delivered information to the country that was disagreeable to many Americans: There is no way to withdraw from a futile war without messiness. The expectation that there would be no misery or casualties was a fantasy.
A case in point is the issue of Afghan refugees. “I know of no conflict, as a student of history — no conflict where, when a war was ending, one side was able to guarantee that everyone that wanted to be extracted from that country would get out,” Biden said solemnly. His historical memory is accurate.
The United States has transported roughly 120,000 Afghans and American citizens to safety at great human cost. That miraculous feat is a tribute to the humanity and bravery of the U.S. military and civilian personnel and volunteers. But any hope of depopulating a war-torn country, and ending the suffering there (including the dismal future for millions of women and girls) after our defeat is not grounded in reality. It belongs with the magical thinking that the United States could create a nation state in Afghanistan.
A week ago, many in the media were lecturing the administration for abandoning Afghans. Now, after we evacuated about 120,000 people at the cost of 13 American lives, reporters wanted to know why we were keeping troops at the airport. In response to such a question on Thursday, Biden said: “There are additional American citizens, there are additional green-card holders, there are additional personnel of our allies, there are additional SIV cardholders, there are additional Afghans that have helped us, and there are additional groups of individuals that — who have contacted us from women’s groups, to NGOs, and others, who have expressly indicated they want to get out.”) He was criticized for “abandoning” Afghans; when we stay to rescue them he gets faulted for risking American lives.
The insistence that there must have been a painless way — or, by gosh, a less painless way! — to lose a 20-year war, rescue all imperiled Afghans and avoid any more casualties is a fable too many insist on cultivating.
We should have kept control of Bagram airfield! (Bagram is 30 miles or so from Kabul. The U.S. military would have had to protect any caravan of refugees transported there, while also defending a very large facility.)
We should have pulled out everyone in April! (Would not the Afghan government have crumbled then?)
We should have known the army would collapse! (Apparently 20 years of training and effort to forge a national identity was a waste of time.)
Just leave a few thousand U.S. troops there! (And attacks akin to what happened on Thursday would magically cease? One should think long and hard before increasing the number of Gold Star parents.)
Biden seemed sincerely interested in confronting the media’s favored storylines. As reporters scoffed at the notion that the United States trusts the Taliban to provide security, Biden explained, “No one trusts them; we’re just counting on their self-interest to continue to generate their activities. And it’s in their self-interest that we leave when we said and that we get as many people out as we can.” He added, “And like I said, even in the midst of everything that happened today, over 7,000 people have gotten out; over 5,000 Americans overall.”
He might have saved his breath. Reporters will ask the same question over and over again, as if to suggest that they would have a more sophisticated approach to dealing with the Taliban than those on the ground.
The conviction that a president should have foreseen everything and escaped the consequences of a disastrous war is reflective of the mind-set of highly educated professionals, who are convinced all problems can be addressed if only we find someone wise enough to see around all the corners. There is no way to defuse the certitude of Biden’s critics, or to dispel their self-serving rationale for leaving troops there indefinitely. Biden, like all presidents, must do what he thinks is right and leave the verdict to voters — and to history.
The administration made serious errors in 2021 — as did three administrations in the 19 years beforehand. The worst of the recent errors may have been believing the Afghan government and military could stand on their own, at least for a year. That, in turn, set the pace of visa processing and evacuations and the timing of a final withdrawal. The paths not taken (rushing to the exit sooner, leaving troops there indefinitely) could have had dire consequences as well, but these are abstract — while the suffering we watch is concrete and gut-wrenching.
We need some sober reflection on the folly of overeager interventionism. We need to come to terms with the delusional feedback loop between civilian and military leaders. Instead we have a media and political culture that are not serious or attentive enough to grasp that dilemmas 20 years in the making have no good answer, just less terrible ones. Everything is reduced to a partisan question. (Is Biden in crisis? Is this a boost for Republicans?) The media, it seems, does not know how to cover a tragedy without viewing it through the lens of horse-race politics. It is so much easier to pronounce the exit a “disaster” than to consider if one’s advocacy over 20 years contributed to the groupthink that sent young men and women to die. Confronted with 13 dead Americans, the press is eager to demonstrate Biden missed the obvious, safe course. What that is, they do not explain.
This week’s loss of life — both American and Afghan — is heartbreaking. With a mainstream media obsessed with stoking partisan squabbling, and Americans refusing to process the consequences of their own choices, it does make one pessimistic about self-government.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.