Can we evacuate 300,000 people from Afghanistan?
It doesn’t matter if this wasn’t the question we wanted to answer. It’s the only question now. And probably, there are just hours left to make the commitment that we will.
Because whether leaving Afghanistan was the right call or not; whether it’s all gone to plan or would always have been chaos; whether the error was merely in execution or in strategic view — we cannot ignore the implications of failure if the evacuation of Afghanistan leaves 300,000 people behind. It will change us and everything that we are able to do after.
First, there is the human cost. The Afghans left behind — translators, guards, cooks, local embassy staff, aides who worked side by side with us, saved countless American lives — will be targeted, hunted, tormented, tortured, repressed, and maybe killed by the Taliban. The same will be true of their families, if they will not denounce us. Leaving them behind is leaving hostages for the Taliban. The bleeding won’t stop soon; it’s not a band-aid to rip off. It will take years — years of stories, images, videos — and we will own it all. We will never be out of Afghanistan if this terror anchors us there.
Second, there is the information cost — the propaganda cost. All of this will be broadcast by a more media-aware Taliban, amplified on social media and via our media, amped by our adversaries in the information domain — endless propaganda for the glories of jihad, American abandonment, and Western failure that we will chew on and eagerly engage for domestic political point-scoring, blissfully unaware of how it weakens us in the world. The secondary aspect is of course about recruitment. Recall the early days of ISIS.
Third, there is the already-visible cost to the alliances we rely on. Our NATO allies and partners came when we called, stood by us because we asked — and then we left them in the soup, muttering something about the beginning of a new era. Special operators from allied and partners countries are racing the clock to get evacuees to the airport, taking significant risks. The perception from all of them is that it didn’t need to go this way.
It isn’t just the US administration under fire for the execution of the evacuation. This pulls at fractures within Europe and NATO that are exacerbated by doubts about American reliability. “If the Russians come,” one Baltic friend said to me this week, “will America be with us — or will you say we didn’t fight hard enough to be free?” This is more than a reflection on history and a swipe at the rhetoric from the White House about Afghans not fighting for their own country. The territorial defense plan in the Baltics — if faced with an organized Russian invasion — is to let the region fall, and then to retake it as fast as possible using resistance networks. This plan is trust-based, faith-based. It wouldn’t work if the US wavers, if faith in the US wavers. This is one ripple across the surface of a very choppy pond this week as our treaty allies try to make sense of what they are seeing. Each has their own questions, about us and themselves. Everybody needs a win here. The outcome of the evacuation can quell fears, rebuild confidence, renew a sense of unity and integrity — or not.
Fourth, there is the strategic cost. Leaving 300,000 people to die when we didn’t need to will be a total strategic failure in any framing — great power competition or counterterrorism or “over the horizon” whatever. The administration has voiced this idea that what Russia and China wanted was for us to be “bogged down” in Afghanistan, and thus by leaving, we’re pulling a fast one on them. This is a limited representation of the choices and implications — perhaps one factor from a list of 20 about what US withdrawal from the region means and the realignments it heralds. Putin has made it clear it’s his region now — no US drone bases, no refugee transit, pressure on regional partners who think cooperation with America is a good idea. China has economic and other interests in that guarantee its influence and future. Both are fine playing tactical footsie with the Taliban.
In the simplest terms, we left a vacuum for our adversaries to play in, and they will. But we’re weaker, in perception, projection, reality — and in our leverage, clout, and confidence — if we don’t complete this final task of saving those who saved us.
Fifth, there is the cascading cost in moral standing. Where is the Joe Biden who described, in his first foreign policy speech as president and to the relief of much of the world, the need to confront “advancing authoritarianism” with a world view based on “America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” Some interpretations this week have simply been that the administration sees no role for Afghanistan in the chess match between democracy and authoritarianism, and that by jettisoning it, we can “refocus” on bigger fish. But the chess match occurs in these in-between places as much as around shiny tables in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. And there is this question, still unanswered, of what juggernaut will defend human rights in marginal places if we do not.
Because far less abstract is that everything we do in the world becomes more costly in effort, lives, and treasure if our virtual might — our moral armor — evaporates. American soldiers, diplomats, and more will have to work in difficult places without the extra shielding and force multiplication of good will and good faith.
No one expected better of President Trump. Everyone hoped for better from President Biden. And it is that margin of disappointment and surprise that is so powerful and can become dangerous for Americans walking the world.
Additionally, everything becomes more costly for everyone else fighting for the better, more free, more accountable nations that America needs as partners — all the people standing against autocrats and corruption, all the people trying to protect minority religions and ethnicities from slaughter and repression, all the people trying to tell the stories of why this matters. The risk for all of them will be higher if those who seek to crush them are more certain that America doesn’t have their back. More will find an end in prison, execution, disappearance, hard labor, re-education if Trump’s pattern of not really caring except when it was politically expedient seems to continue. Autocrats safe within spheres of influence and interests won’t hesitate to act. More Navalnies, more Khashoggies, more Uighurs and Hong Kongs and Belaruses. Every time we need to affect outcomes in places “over the horizon,” it will be harder in real and opportunity costs for us to do so. Everything will be harder if we fail this moral challenge. Everything.
Finally, there is the internal cost of the failure to save so many lives. Self-doubt, questioning of identity. The erosion of trust between government and society and between institutions. The gamble here was clearly the belief that Americans don’t really care about Afghanistan, or will lose interest quickly. But the issue of perceptions of weakness is a different one than whether a war was popular or not. It’s hard to project strength when there is a sense of unnecessary loss of life.
In one specific aspect, I worry about a hard-to-describe erosion of trust between our military and its civilian leadership. Afghanistan will be like Benghazi multiplied by a hundred, a thousand. I don’t mean the political clownery and Republican-bungled hearings that followed Benghazi, turning it into a Pavlovian noise for Americans — I mean what actually happened at Benghazi, and the way that many of our service members understood it. We have a deal with our guys — all the men and women who sign up to defend the nation. It’s a simple deal, in the end, and they know it. The deal is that we’re coming for you, no matter what. You could be trapped, taken prisoner, fighting until the last bullet, or a bag of meat — but will we come and get you and take you home. It’s why we’re still looking for bones in Vietnam decades later. And while Americans were under attack in Benghazi, returning fire for hours and hours, they thought someone was coming for them. There were American forces sitting on a plane waiting to go get them, and they were never allowed to go. To them, this was an unconscionable thing. It doesn’t matter if it was hopeless, if they couldn’t have gotten there in time — you put the plane in the air because that is what we do. We do it as acknowledgment of the valor and sacrifice of those who are buying time for others, to save lives, to finish a mission.
We’re coming for you, no matter what the cost — but Benghazi broke the deal. In Afghanistan, again a US administration seems to be breaking the deal, saying the cost is too high, saying we are leaving people behind. For many in the military who served in Afghanistan, this isn’t a headline of weeks, but an effort of years to save the lives of the men who saved theirs, over and over, and whose families are at risk for their service to us, who pay the price because they believed the dreams we sold them. It isn’t about whether the war was right or lost or winnable. It is about saving the lives of those who saved them. They will not forget if we fail. Add to that what we ask of them now, our troops still in Afghanistan. To retreat and leave their posts, weapons, armor to an enemy that killed them for sport. To retreat to a near-impossible final security mission in Afghanistan, holding one last wire, when out beyond the wire — sometimes by meters where you can look them in the eye, see them swarmed by Taliban fighters, sometimes by miles — there are Americans and those who saved American lives who need rescue, and you are told not to go and get them. The hours tick by. One plane after the next. But they know how it will end as the enemy who used to take potshots at them now guarantees their operational viability.
A generation of soldiers grew up in these complex, messy wars while civilian and military leadership failed to define or understand victory. Now networks of current and former soldiers are working to get their guys and their families out one at a time — before a final failure in the failure of Afghanistan that they are sure everyone will try to pin to them. We broke the deal again. Erosion of trust we desperately need in this worn and battered nation.
You can question all the decisions that got us to this point in Afghanistan. You can absolutely point out that the victory of the Taliban was guaranteed by the abdication deal Trump and Pompeo brokered and tried to pass off as success — when actually it was designed to do exactly what we see now, which was stop the bleeding just long enough, stop the Taliban’s assassinations of our special operators, stop the scrutiny of how Russia was aiding the Taliban in its takeover, stop the ticker on the American body count until the whole thing became someone else’s problem. They brokered a deal for Taliban victory and American failure.
But Trump isn’t president anymore, and we don’t have to fail in this one last objective.
The act of abandoning the Afghans who we know we must save will devastate us in the world and at home, in vision, identity, purpose, sacrifice. We can get them out — every last one on the many lists compiled by the organizations on the ground, by the veterans groups and military networks. Make it clear that we aren’t leaving anyone behind. Let them come and we can give them shelter as they sheltered Americans, help them find a home here in America so they can strengthen us with renewed belief in what America is when we have so lost sight of it.
There is enormous public support in the US and across our alliance for evacuating our Afghan partners. Armies of volunteers and mountains of donations have answered calls for assistance with the arrival of these families. It’s a win we all need. A morale boost in the unfinished wars we all know are ahead. A political victory for the unwavering champion. But we need to get them here.
“Yet not one American has died” has become something of a mantra to minimize the chaos of the evacuation. This is the wrong calculation of sacrifice. Far fewer Americans died because of the Afghans who acted as our eyes and ears and tongues and partners as we struggled to understand a place we wanted to transform. Our decision that we’re done with this fight doesn’t change the bravery of what they did.
Saving 300,000 lives would be victory enough to end. It is the kind of effort we and our allies are worthy of — the kind of task we relish, a final signal of the good we meant to do, the accomplishment of which can bolster us when the rest is pretty bleak. An acknowledgment of the sacrifice of so many Americans, military and civilian, who served to build a better Afghanistan because we asked them to, and who are doing god’s work now frantically trying to save as many lives as they can. We must do this. For ourselves, for our alliances, for all the Afghans who stood with us.
300,000. Get it done.
Original photo credits:
1) US CENTCOM Public Affairs, Operation Allies Refuge, Senior Airman Brandon Cribelar
2) US CENTCOM Public Affairs, Evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara
3) US CENTCOM Public Affairs, Afghanistan Evacuation, Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla
4) US Air Force, 82nd Airborne departs for Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Dawn M. Weber