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OPINION | GREG HARTON: U.S. pullout messy, but it's the right policy in Afghanistan

by Greg Harton | August 22, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

As a child, I would from time to time hear someone make a comment to the effect that "You could grow up to be president of the United States."

They meant it, I think, as a message of encouragement, with a sense of awe and appreciation for freedom and this nation's capacity to promote upward mobility through education.

Today, telling a young person he or she could grow up to be president might sound more like a threat.

Who would have wanted to be Joe Biden last week?

No, I'm not suggesting sympathy for Biden. He's a big boy and asked for the job. Beyond anyone's taste or distaste for Biden's leadership, the question remains: After 20 years of military involvement in Afghanistan, was there really any question it was time to get out?

Biden wanted out. Donald Trump wanted out.

It was less than a month after Osama bin Laden's orchestrated 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., that the George W. Bush launched the military invasion of Afghanistan. The goal was to (1) hunt down al-Qaeda operatives and (2) end Afghanistan's role as a place where terrorists freely operate and train their forces.

Most Americans backed President Bush, who told the Taliban in Afghanistan they would turn over bin Laden and other terrorists or "share in their fate." Americans had, just weeks earlier, cheered when Bush, standing on rubble of the World Trade Center towers, declared to emergency workers "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon." The rescuers broke out in chants of "USA! USA!" and the nation stood ready for war.

Of course, nobody outlined plans at the time for the American military presence to last 20 years. Would Americans have been ready to send in troops if Bush had proposed a war of 20, 25 or 30 years?

In the wake of that horrific event, Americans were ready for vengeance. Not since Pearl Harbor in 1941 had the nation experienced such a massive attack on a civilian target within its borders. Given that terrorists and their organizations are always moving, they don't make as easy a target as a nation-state. They can literally scatter like roaches into cracks and crevices of other nations. We can kill leaders and the rank-and-file, and there's merit in doing so to disrupt identifiable organizations. But defeating terrorism? It's like suggesting one can eliminate hate or love, anger or adoration.

So what was the end-game in Afghanistan? Was it to wait until there's some guarantee Afghans would stand strong against the Taliban? Is that 25 years? Is it 30? Based on the collapse of whatever Afghan military the United States had helped build, it seems training does not necessarily translate into fortitude and endurance.

Biden said Friday the United States' interests in maintaining the occupation of Afghanistan no longer existed. I think he and Trump were right on that. The war on terror isn't just in Afghanistan.

The immediate question remains whether the United States will, through a withdrawal that appears to lack any significant level of military precision, create a humanitarian crisis by leaving behind Afghans who provided assistance to American troops over the last two decades.

Biden's administration and the Pentagon deserve the criticism they're getting on that front. Hopefully, they will finish stronger than they began.

The long-term issue for the United States, though, wasn't how smooth the withdrawal would be. It was whether U.S. troops needed to maintain an occupation in Afghanistan. On that, Biden and Trump were right, whether or not Afghans would fight for their country.

Print Headline: Withdrawal messy, but necessary


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