In the immediate aftermath of the heroic rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill addressed the British as adults, reminding them that “wars are not won by evacuations.” As the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan ends, the authors of the ignominious and tragic last chapter are hoping that perceptions will be more malleable than facts are.
With an effrontery that deserves derision, the Biden administration has compared U.S. flights out of Kabul to the U.S. flights into Berlin that began in 1948. Both exemplified U.S. military virtuosity, but sent different signals.
By sustaining a blockaded city of 2.2 million, the Promethean delivery of food and fuel into Berlin — almost 300,000 flights, over 11 months — announced that the United States had the will and capacity for a prolonged confrontation with the Soviet Union. The flights out of Kabul, rescuing some of the Americans and others caught in a made-in-America calamity, announce national bewilderment. This is what “America First” looks like when a slogan becomes a policy.
Every war, even inconclusive ones, must end, but not like this. In late November 1952, president-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower flew in a light plane over the front lines in Korea. “It was obvious,” he laconically recalled in his 1963 memoirs, “that any frontal attack would present great difficulties.” He decided to seek a negotiated end to the war. Sixty-nine years later, there are 28,500 U.S. troops, and peace, on the Korean Peninsula.
The current president’s party controls both houses of Congress, and nowadays members of both parties act as though their duty is not to make independent institutional judgments but rather to demonstrate a vassal’s fealty to presidents of their party. So, Congress probably will not cast a cold eye on the incompetent and dishonorable conduct that Rory Stewart summarized with his riveting, scalding responses in a video interview in London.
Stewart, a British politician and diplomat, lived three years in Afghanistan and recalls that by 2001, when the previous Taliban regime was toppled, 4 million Afghans from a population of 20 million had fled the country to escape the dark night of theocratic cruelties. Stewart was incensed about Biden’s “incredibly offensive” Aug. 16 address, in which Biden disparaged the Afghans’ “will to fight.” Stewart:
“The United States provided all the air support for the Afghans. [The Americans] didn’t just take their own planes away. They took away 16,000 civilian contractors who were maintaining the Afghan helicopters. … So those things can’t even fly. And the morale damage. They left in the middle of the night from Bagram [air base]. They didn’t even tell the commander that they were leaving. The Afghans woke up in the morning. All their planes disabled, the Americans have left, no support of any kind. And you’re asking who exactly? Who is President Biden asking to fight?
“I mean, if you are an Afghan woman teaching in a school in Pul-e-Charkhi. Really? Really? I mean what are they expecting? A bunch of guys come riding in in pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, into your town. You don’t want the Taliban in there, you don’t support them. But if you’re genuinely asking them to put up a suicidal fight when the United States … was not even prepared to keep 2,500 soldiers and some planes in the country, with zero casualties, zero risk over the last few years. … No U.S. serviceman has been killed in Afghanistan for 18 months. No British serviceman for longer than that. This has not been a costly mission since 2014. … To basically hand [the Afghan people] over to the Taliban and then say, it’s your fault, you’re all a bunch of cowards, when we pulled out and weren’t prepared to accept a tiny presence.”
On Thursday, after Stewart spoke, the evacuation suddenly became horrifically more deadly for the U.S. military than the war had been for years. Biden’s hasty and unilateral decision to abandon NATO’s Afghanistan mission has done more damage to that alliance than the strains of 45 Cold War years did. Worldwide, nations are recalibrating their security policies, weighing reliance on a wobbly, impulsive United States against accommodation with a China that is on a different trajectory. Biden’s immediate task is to reassess his reliance on the intelligence, military and policymaking officials who gave him assessments and assurances that have been shredded by events. When there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate.
Biden expresses an — strictly speaking — incredible confidence that his decisions since July have been sound. The nation could have more confidence in him if he had less in himself.