The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A dark day reminds us: Thousands of Americans are risking everything for this rescue mission

Smoke rises from a deadly explosion outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday. (Wali Sabawoon/AP)

These are dark hours — for the United States, for the families of its service members who have been slaughtered by terrorists in Kabul and, indeed, for the Afghan people, especially those who are mourning their dead and those still seeking haven abroad. The shadow cast by Thursday’s attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport is deep. But it cannot obscure the brilliance and sacrifice of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, and those of allied nations, who have moved more than 100,000 people out of harm’s way under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Their achievement shines through. President Biden said Thursday that the rescue mission by U.S. forces will continue, as it should.

Yet it is uncertain how many more people they can save, for how much longer before the Aug. 31 deadline that still seems in effect. What was, in moral terms, an act of evil — predictable and indeed predicted though it was — represents in operational terms a damaging breach of security. That breach must be repaired, especially since U.S. officials have candidly said the threat of terrorism is far from over. The Taliban condemned the attack, which was claimed by their rival terror group, an Islamic State affiliate, ISIS-K. And perhaps the Taliban’s outrage is sincere, despite all the innocent blood, American and Afghan, it has spilled over the years. Nevertheless, two suicide bombers and additional gunmen were able to strike while the Taliban had assumed responsibility for the Kabul airport’s perimeter security, to include searching people and vehicles as they approached. The gamble that the Biden administration took — albeit necessarily — by relying on the Taliban has had the results many feared.

The future agenda for a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and its relations with the world now includes accountability for what has happened. The United States should take swift retaliation on ISIS-K, whose deed certainly reminds, as if there were any doubt, that terrorism threats still do exist in, and emanate from, the Afghan territory that U.S. troops are about to abandon. New questions can, and should, be raised about the feasibility of the “over the horizon” approach to countering those threats that Mr. Biden envisions. New questions can, and should, be raised about the wisdom of his decision to withdraw and the manner in which he and his team have executed it.

What the moment decidedly does not call for, however, is partisan finger-pointing and point-scoring. This country’s internal divisions have done enough harm already; in a complicated way, our inability to debate difficult foreign policy and national security choices rationally and in good faith is a part of what has brought the United States to this painful moment. The extraordinary men and women at Kabul airport, doing their duty, for the benefit of their country and for their fellow human beings, have set an example, and some have paid the ultimate price. The best tribute the nation could pay would be to face whatever comes next with less hatefulness and greater unity.

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