On Sunday, President Joe Biden traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the return ceremony for the bodies of 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week. It may not be the last such memorial; there is no good way for the United States to extricate itself from a war it has lost. Each remaining ceremony will be given the sort of attention the last decade’s worth of U.S. deaths could not muster, and you can read into that what you will.
In the meantime, the situation in Kabul itself continues to be one of organized semi-chaos. Military evacuation efforts continue apace. Reuters reports that up to five rockets were fired at the Kabul airport by unknown attackers, with either some or all of them intercepted by a U.S. missile defense system deployed for the purpose.
Sunday also saw a U.S. drone strike aimed at what Defense Department officials claimed to be an explosive-laden vehicle associated with ISIS-K terrorists, but that witnesses on the ground claim struck and killed an Afghan aid worker, a military contractor, and seven children.
It is a moment of the type that quickly became commonplace in the United States’ Forever War. Military and administration officials talk of surgical strikes eliminating identified terrorists and enemy combatants; reporting and photos of the aftermath regularly called those claims into question.
What seems much clearer is that there will be more attacks meant to block or terrorize U.S.-led evacuation efforts. It now appears that top military leaders had received intelligence reports indicating that last week’s suicide bombing was imminent, though they could not prevent it. U.S. officials continue to publicly warn that ISIS-K, in particular, is targeting U.S. troops and fleeing Afghan civilians alike.
U.S. trust in the Taliban’s own efforts to secure the region around the airport and to allow safe passage of Afghans seeking evacuation from the country were low from the beginning and remain so. A new joint statement by numerous world governments released Sunday is terse in reminding Taliban leaders that the governments “have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from other countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner” to evacuation points, noting it as a “clear expectation and commitment from the Taliban.”
The statement follows repeated on-the-ground charges that some Afghan civilians are being blocked from traveling by local Taliban forces. It is possible that Taliban leaders are making calculated decisions to block such refugees in places that it doesn’t think the United States will easily notice or can easily respond to. But it’s also possible that the Taliban, never much more than a collection of warlords banded together for the sake of inflicting violence and repression on everyone else, has less control over individual forces than is commonly imagined. Taliban leaders appear to now desperately want international recognition for a new version of their theocratic, oppressive government, and have been at self-aware enough to at least pretend at more moderate stances while bargaining for the United States’ withdrawal.
Taliban soldiers, on the other hand, may be uninterested in such diplomacy and only too eager to strike back at anyone they believe assisted the United States during the 20 years of war. No matter what protestations of integrity the Taliban team now huddled in Kabul might pipe up with, a group that gained international fame for unspeakable viciousness against civilians who defied them has little claim on international recognition if its new promises never make it out of Kabul proper.
It is not likely that any of this will be easily changed in the next few weeks. Evacuations will continue. The Taliban that Trump negotiated the drawdown with will continue to struggle to fulfill even their initial security commitments, as militants who wish to discredit both sides will continue to mount attacks. The hard withdrawal date of Aug. 31 is upon us, but few seem quite sure what that will mean, or what “extending” it would look like.
Meanwhile, the foreign policy crowds most hostile to full withdrawal are keeping that the not-entirely-objective drumbeat banging through each news cycle. Do we really want to leave? Do we really intend to give up a dream of creating a stable, pro-American Afghan government that would not topple at the first stiff breeze? Do we really want bodies to stop coming in to Dover Air Force Base, cold proof that while we may never have tried to achieve that goal very hard, at least we were willing hand over regular sacrifices in order to keep trying a little longer?
There are no simple answers. There is no good way to lose a war—and no good way to win one, either. If anything, it is the complete inability of foreign policy and military leaders to produce anything in Afghanistan that could survive a few scant days on its own before collapsing that should be the most galling. This nation lost its sons and daughters to secure a government that would collapse at roughly the speed it took for Taliban commanders to make the drive through each province. The entire collected expertise of each hawkish think tank amounted to literally nothing, after two decades of prescriptions.
There may be no simple answers, but answers are needed. American lives are not currency for well-heeled political ideologues to so freely squander. An accounting is in order here.
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