As we witness the chaotic withdrawal of American troops and an American presence in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of an imposed occupation by a nation that is literally as distant as can possibly be on a scale of societal freedom and justice my stomach aches and my mind hurts. What is the plan for withdrawal? What are the parameters that allow for the departure not only for Americans but for those who fear for their lives if they stay? Is there any assurance for those who live outside Kabul? Is there room for extending the deadline for withdrawal if there are unseen circumstances, say for instance if people cannot get the appropriate documents for leaving whether they live in the capital or in any of the other areas which comprise the country?
I know that it is already old news to compare the frantic withdrawal to the disaster of Saigon 46 years earlier, however for those of us at an age to have been eligible for induction into the military to fight for a war that could not be rationalized in any sense raises the same feelings of sorrow. The sickening feeling that my country was lowering the final indignities upon a culture we never really either understood or cared about and that cost us over 58,000 American lives is as deep now as it was then. If we gave people our word we would not abandon them, no agreement is valid that abrogates that responsibility.
What are the parameters that allow for the departure not only for Americans but for those who fear for their lives if they stay?
Vietnam was a disaster from beginning to end but the chaotic withdrawal was the final straw exposing the indignity of a nation that simply could not face the reality of fighting in a country they knew nothing about. Even then we still made the effort. When put into context, Operations Babylift and Frequent Wind resulted in the rescue of some 130,000 Vietnamese nationals and their families. No one is even suggesting that a rescue effort at those levels is being forwarded in any of the scenarios currently under consideration.
The ultimate measure of honor is to not to bluster we will be there to protect those who risked the lives for American soldiers and to leave no one behind but rather to fulfill that promise should circumstances dictate the necessity to do so. That Afghan citizens who lent their knowledge and understanding of their culture to an occupying army most surely did so in exchange for a commitment that they and their families would be taken care of in the event of withdrawal. If we turn our backs on that promise we look not only defeated, but so much smaller in the minds of those who are watching. And the whole world is watching!
I remember vividly watching the Soviet military exiting Afghanistan in 1989 and remarking at the time that it was equivalent to our disgraceful exit from Vietnam. I remember asking whether or not superpowers will ever learn lessons about engaging military opponents in guerrilla war tactics where no appreciation for either the terrain, the politics, the history and culture, or the dignity of those willing to die for their country seems to factor into military planning that has a tendency to place sheer firepower over all other considerations. And so here we are again, what a waste.
Our initial rationalization following 9/11 was to attack and wipe out the roots of international terrorism: Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, ISIS.T. The need to respond to the attack on the World Trade Center provided both a rationale and a remedy to the senseless attacks that were being hurled at countries around the world. No one would have argued at the time or even now that a demonstrative attack upon a terrorism network that was spreading like wild fire was not justified. Over the years the United States led an international effort to destroy terrorism and was largely successful in its counterattack. However, our commitment of military troops turned into a nation-building effort despite protestations to the contrary on behalf of successive Presidential administrations. So what needs to be done now? When did the mission change?
The most important thing that we all must focus upon is how to accelerate what perhaps may be the most ambitious rescue effort ever contemplated. The honor of the nation is at stake, regardless of your party or political inclinations. We are right to leave Afghanistan and should have done so years ago. However, it should have accompanied a solid blueprint that had at the very least a prospect for success. Obviously, the ultimate and overwhelming failure reflected in the haste with which US trained troops abandoned their weapons and surrendered to the prospects of a return to a medieval society suggests that we have made a very poor long-term investment indeed. It is either poor intelligence, poor planning, or possibly both, but does not reflect well upon what appears to be an impetuous decision. That the genesis of the current agreement had its gestation in a negotiation worked out by the previous Administration is not surprising but par for the course and irrelevant given the gravity of the situation at hand.
We need to sufficiently identify goals and objectives for military involvement, stick to those identifiable outcomes, and must include withdrawal commitments made to those who feel that circumstances dictate protection (those whose lives are threatened once our protection is withdrawn) and leave. Do they address these issues at West Point, or the US Army War College?
The military leadership and the White House need to undertake a massive and most likely painful after action report that puts into stark perspective the goals, objectives, tactics, and withdrawal protocols that must be required before our next excursion. Lives are at stake and importantly so are the protection of our democratic and humane ideals as a nation and the proficiency with which our overwhelming military might is used only in the most dire of consequences must show that we are respectful to the needs of others and protectors of the oppressed.
Being cautious about involvement in military excursions does not need to reflect isolationism, just as overstaying our usefulness does not necessarily reflect our good will. There are enough problems affecting not only the nation, but the world that will require cooperation not confrontation. We must strive to focus more on the former and less on the latter. This simply cannot ever happen again!