There’s a wrong way to withdraw from war. We’re on the verge in Afghanistan.

Columnist, The Washington Post

July 6, 2021Image without a caption

Presidents, Cabinet secretaries, generals, special envoys, congressional delegations and other assorted VIPs know the Bagram air base near Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The base was where they arrived bearing countless stirring promises, and where they departed laden with depressing doubts.

U.S. forces abandoned the base in the dark of night on July 2 without a word to Afghan authorities, leaving tons of supplies behind. After nearly 20 years, the ugly last act of America’s longest war is officially underway.

As expected, Taliban fighters have retaken the offensive after a winter hiatus. It’s unclear how much resistance they’ll face. Precious little in the provinces, it seems. The other day, 1,000 Afghan government troops — members of the force America has been paying, arming and training — fled into neighboring Tajikistan rather than fight. But in Kabul, where economic freedom and human rights have made real inroads, Afghans may yet make a stand for modernity rather than return meekly to the Taliban’s dark age.

Leaving has been the United States’ bipartisan goal and promise for many years.

What’s more, the force that Biden is removing had already been reduced to 2,500 troops. That number, if they stayed, would not be enough to stop the Taliban. U.S. special operators are the finest combat troops in the world. They call to mind the old motto of the legendary Texas lawmen: “One riot, one ranger.” Even so, they have not been able to stem the steady advance of the ousted Islamists against the corrupt and listless Afghan government.

Doing the same failed thing in hopes of a different outcome is, they say, a definition of insanity.

Biden’s critics suggest our adversaries are gloating. If they are, they won’t be for long. Russia beat the same retreat from Afghanistan after its own decade of failure there. Moscow has been happy to have the United States keeping a lid on the place.

As for China: Its 21st-century Belt and Road Initiative is drawing Beijing inexorably in the direction of Afghanistan. The ruling Communist Party is already waging an undeclared war against Islam in its western provinces, in hopes of clearing a path to Europe through the Muslim heartland. In pursuit of this goal, a million Uyghur Muslims are being brainwashed in Chinese concentration camps. A Taliban state next door is Beijing’s nightmare.

But if Biden deserves credit for bringing this failed war to an end, there’s still a wrong way to go about leaving. The Post’s intrepid veteran war correspondent Pamela Constable and reporter Ezzatullah Mehrdad relate that an untold number of Afghans who have served U.S. forces as interpreters and in other roles still have no word about plans to bring them to safety beyond the Taliban’s reach.

“I gave everything I had to the Americans, but once they are gone, I will be killed,” Abdul Rashid Shirzad told the journalists. The 35-year-old husband and father mastered English and risked his life to serve two years as a battlefield interpreter for Navy SEALs. Shirzad said his identity and those of other U.S. employees are well known to Taliban extremists: “They keep track of us, and they don’t shoot us like they do Afghan soldiers. If they catch me, they will behead me.”

U.S. officials in Kabul were tight-lipped about last-minute arrangements to rescue our friends. But it appears that authorities have given the same attention to planning for our departure from Afghanistan as we gave to our arrival — which is to say, zip.

The last time the Taliban ruled, mass executions were carried out in the Kabul soccer stadium. If such scenes are repeated in coming months or years, and the victims are abandoned friends of the United States, that will indeed be shameful, and the Biden administration will own that shame. Time is quickly running out to make the safety of those friends our top priority.

For those old enough to remember Saigon 1975, the feeling today is of deja vu. The Afghanistan quagmire involved different tactics but betrayed the same lack of strategy. The lesson, then and now, is: Never start a war without a clear definition of victory and the plans and means to achieve it.

Let’s hope the learning lasts longer this time.

There’s a wrong way to withdraw from war. We’re on the verge in Afghanistan.