On Oct. 23, 1983, terrorists detonated a truck bomb at the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American service members who were participating in a peacekeeping operation. Three months later, after failing to retaliate in any meaningful fashion, President Ronald Reagan withdrew all U.S. forces from Beirut. Reagan’s decision to cut and run had disastrous consequences. Osama bin Laden tried to replicate the Beirut Marine Corps barracks bombing with his bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and then to exceed it with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Years later, bin Laden cited “the defeat of the American forces in Beirut” as proof that the United States was soft, and that if al-Qaeda hit us hard enough, we could be forced to retreat and withdraw. He further declared that the United States had done the same thing in Somalia, “trailing disappointment, defeat and failure behind it.” The United States, he said, “achieved nothing. It left quicker than people had imagined.” The United States would eventually retreat from Afghanistan in similar fashion.
Now Biden is fulfilling bin Laden’s prophecy. Except after Thursday’s attack, we are no longer simply handing the country over to our enemies, as we did in Vietnam; we are now leaving under fire, as we did in Beirut. And just as the Beirut retreat inspired America’s enemies to attack the U.S. homeland on 9/11, if we pull out on Aug. 31 with our tail between our legs, it will send a signal of weakness certain to inspire terrorists around the world.
Instead of a speedy evacuation, we need an immediate show of strength.
First, we should inform the Taliban that the United States holds it responsible for this attack. It established a ring of checkpoints surrounding around the airport. It controlled who got in and who did not. It stopped both Americans and Afghans from reaching the airport — but somehow the bomber got through, and another struck at a nearby hotel. Whether letting the bomber through to the airport was intentional or simply a security failure, we should tell the Taliban it failed to meet its commitment to secure the airport — and is thus responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen U.S. service members.
Second, we should inform the Taliban that because its failure to prevent this attack has delayed the evacuation, we will not be leaving on Aug. 31 — and will not set another arbitrary deadline for withdrawal. We will depart once every American, and every Afghan ally, has been evacuated — and not a moment sooner. We will stay as long as it takes to carry out that mission. We should make clear this is not a request. They have no say in the matter.
Third, we should inform the Taliban that since it failed to establish a secure perimeter at the airport, we will do so. We are also retaking Bagram air base so that we have another airfield to use for evacuations. And we will be conducting missions across the country to retrieve stranded Americans and their Afghan allies. Any interference in these operations will have severe consequences.
Finally, we should immediately deliver justice to those who attacked U.S. forces. In a speech Thursday afternoon, Biden warned the terrorists, “We will hunt you down and make you pay.” That will be hard to do if we withdraw all of our forces from the country on Tuesday.
While Biden promised to strike back, it was his decision to hand Bagram air base over to the Taliban that allowed it to throw open a prison there, releasing 5,000 to 7,000 prisoners — who were free to threaten U.S. forces as they pulled out. The prison contained a maximum-security cell block that held the most senior and dangerous Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorist leaders. If any of those prisoners were involved in Thursday’s attack, that would be a searing indictment of Biden’s decision to give up Bagram before we withdrew.
But instead of being chastened, Biden used this deadly attack as justification to stick with his Aug. 31 deadline, declaring this is “why I’ve been sodetermined to limit the duration of this mission.” In other words, the terrorists succeeded: By killing Americans, they reinforced Biden’s determination to retreat as fast as he can.
If Biden fails to act decisively in response to this attack, and withdraws next Tuesday as scheduled, he will embolden our enemies to carry out even more deadly attacks once we have left Afghanistan. To do so would be to repeat the mistakes the United States made in Beirut four decades ago. The lesson of Beirut is that weakness is provocative — and that when the United States runs after a terrorist attack, the result is not safety and security, it is even more terrorism.