“Defeat is not an option” used to be a meaningful slogan regarding our choices in fighting America’s wars. But that was back when we actually meant it and winning was not just a goal but the only outcome we would ever accept. We haven’t actually won a war since World War II and we did that partly by bombing the enemy’s cities and their inhabitants into oblivion. And while the hundreds of thousands of civilians who died in the process weren’t the primary targets, they were just as dead anyway and the awful civilian toll hastened the end of the war. No one, of course, wants a repeat of that kind of war in which millions of civilian and military lives were lost, including over 400,000 of ours. Subsequent conflicts involved limited objectives and weren’t even formerly referred to as wars but they felt enough like wars to those who fought them.
After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam we had to learn to live with the consequences of losing wars or accepting a stalemate and dealing with the wasted sacrifices of thousands of heroic warriors who died or were maimed fighting a war that their political leaders did not have the perseverance to win. As I write this, the Taliban is telling our commander-in-chief and nominal leader of the western world that he had better have all his troops out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, whether or not we are through evacuating civilians and others in danger, or face consequences. This, then, is what the world’s most powerful nation has been reduced to: negotiating the terms of its surrender with a terrorist group and relying on its cooperation and good faith to help provide security for our withdrawal. That cooperation failed to prevent the Aug. 26 massacre outside the Kabul airport which killed 13 of our troops and over 100 Afghans.
A majority of Americans accept that we are throwing in the towel in Afghanistan. They have no appetite for conflicts or wars of limited objectives that drag on for two decades and bringing home the troops is a popular sentiment. But fewer than a quarter of them agree with the way that this decision was executed. Military planning and decision-making must always consider the worst-case scenario when lives are at stake. That would be the collapse of the Afghan government and military and the swift over-running of the country by the Taliban. A first concern, then, would be to provide for the safe evacuation of our civilians, and others that we were honor-bound to protect because they helped us. That would require having enough troops in place to accomplish this with minimum risk, especially to American civilians. A principal duty of the military, after all, is to protect our citizens. We put the military in harm’s way so that our civilians won’t be, or at least remain there for long. We agree to this duty when we raise our right hands and are sworn in to serve in the military.
By first drawing down our troops and abandoning our bases and equipment, especially Bagram with its two runways, before ensuring that we had enough resources in place to carry out that mission, President Joe Biden, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the U.S., made a grievous mistake which will cause doubts about his competence to act in that role.
Mr. Biden apparently believed that bringing the troops home was more important than first ensuring the safety of American civilians and others that we were morally committed to protect. American troops and military assets are deployed and stationed all over the world. We have 28,500 troops in South Korea, over twice that number in Japan and about 35,000 in Germany plus families and other civilians. We have warships homeported in Japan, Spain and elsewhere and bases throughout the world from which to operate. Doing so makes these assets more accessible when needed. We have no interest in bringing them home and neither do the countries that host them which view their presence as evidence of America’s commitment to its allies. We have world-wide vital interests to protect. Surely, we could have benefitted by leaving a token force of 2,500 in Afghanistan, mainly serving as advisors, not as a combat force, but available to protect our diplomats and other civilians. There hasn’t been a U.S. combat death there in 18 months. Withdrawing completely was a bad decision when Donald Trump made it and made even worse when Mr. Biden bungled its execution.
Safety of American citizens and others at risk needs to be the primary focus for now but dealing with the consequences of this fiasco will be next and it won’t be easy. Loss of American credibility may be the biggest consequence. NATO is now in disarray. The 9/11 attack on America triggered a NATO response in accordance with its policy that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all members. America has now rewarded our NATO allies for that assistance by pulling out of Afghanistan without proper prior coordination with them and instead negotiating with a terrorist group. Does anyone now have confidence that the USA would participate in an armed NATO response if Russia invaded, say, the Baltic States as it did Crimea? Will Vladimir Putin now be emboldened to act?
Will Japan and other friendly Asian nations and Australia reconsider their alliance with us in helping, for example, to defend Taiwan against an invasion by the Peoples’ Republic of China which some believe may not be far in the future? Will Xi Jinping now be emboldened to act sooner rather than later?
Perhaps one way to restore some credibility to America’s leadership role would be take some of the $3.5 trillion entitlement spending binge that Democrats plan to ram through Congress on a partisan budget reconciliation vote and spend it on actually beefing up our military and its infrastructure, and especially our overextended navy, so it might better deter adversaries from taking advantage of what they increasingly view as a nation in decline with a weak and indecisive leadership narrowly focused on domestic issues.