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Bill Straub: Withdrawal from Afghanistan was never to be a walk in the park and it wasn’t, but we’re out

Apparently a lot of Americans thought the withdrawal from Afghanistan was going to be a tiptoe through the tulips, a walk in the park, a simple matter of gathering more than 100,000 people in hostile territory, sticking ‘em on airplanes and depositing them in some safe haven, no muss no fuss.

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course, and anyone who thought this was going to be like lying on the beach at Waikiki is a fool. Moses had one chaotic time leading the Israelites toward the Promised Land. And he even had God on his side to part the Red Sea.
It was bedlam and, at times, a seeming disaster. In the end, tens of thousands departed with American assistance and after 20 long, disgusting, frustrating years through an improbable Rube Goldbergesque scheme, the United States finally achieved its goal of placing Afghanistan in its rearview mirror.

It was not pretty, uglier, in fact, than it had any right to be. President Biden, or his advisors, miscalculated on a number of occasions, from implementing substantial withdrawal plans in advance of his self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline to underestimating the potency of opposition Taliban forces. He was understandably criticized for those missteps.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

But the piling on and posturing began before the withdrawal was even in its infancy and generated some of the most fanatical comments imaginable. The withdrawal was ultimately a shaky success at a terrible cost given the deaths of 13 service members. But Biden’s endeavor is far from grounds for impeachment, demands for his resignation or any other hair-brained idea many Republicans might proffer.

This was not Little Big Horn or the Chosin Reservoir. It was a situation poorly handled at the outset due to some bad intelligence and questionable preparation, the sort of thing that has plagued American foreign policy for seemingly forever.

Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was an early member of the GOP chorus, calling for the immediate resignation of Biden’s national security team, as if that was going to improve the situation. He also offered a scurrilous attack saying he “blamed’’ Biden for the 13 military deaths caused by a suicide bomber from the Islamist State terrorist organization at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where those seeking to depart had gathered.

“President Biden’s precipitous, disorganized and disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has jeopardized everything Americans fought and died for in that country,” Barr said in a statement. “This catastrophic foreign policy blunder has culminated today with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, erasing two decades of progress countering radical jihadists who threaten our homeland.”

He was joined by, among others, Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, who was particularly rankled by the U.S. military equipment confiscated by the Taliban, which he said carried a price tag of $85 billion– although reports place the estimate at less than one-third that amount and most of the equipment had been disabled. Most of what the Taliban managed to carry away was in the possession of the Afghan National Army, which ultimately wilted under the Taliban assault.

“History will not be kind to President Biden for his botched handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal,’’ said Comer, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “We must get all American citizens out of Afghanistan – no matter how long it takes.”

And, of course, no recitation of events would be complete without a few words from the orange nitwit who used to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., who called on Biden to resign.

“What has taken place in Afghanistan made our withdrawal from Vietnam look like child’s play,” said former President Donald J. Trump, in a ridiculous statement proving he knows nothing about what he’s talking about. “Perhaps in World history, there has never been a withdrawal operation that has been handled as disastrously as this.”

None of this, our boy insisted, would have occurred had he remained as president, failing to mention that he had planned a withdrawal in May of this year, negotiated with the Taliban and released 5,000 of the organization’s members.

You bet, pal.

One of the voices of sanity in this state of affairs is Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, who has long argued that the U.S. should maintain the status quo in Afghanistan as a hedge against terrorism. So at least he’s not making it up as he goes along.

During an event in Pikeville on Wednesday, McConnell quashed the notion of impeachment.

“…the way these behaviors get adjusted in this country is through the ballot box,” McConnell said, noting that the polls have shown a dip in Biden’s approval ratings.

Now some facts.

After 20 years, Biden made the command decision to get the hell out of Afghanistan, a misbegotten venture into someone else’s civil war that cost the U.S. almost 2,400 military deaths and $2 trillion with a T. The idea of throwing good money after bad, and further threatening American personnel in a situation not our own, was neither attractive nor sane.

Someone, lost in the cloud of history, once predicted the Viet Minh victory in Vietnam noting, and I paraphrase, eventually you will leave and we will remain. So it was with Afghanistan. To stay was to delay the inevitable.

Biden was not the first to voice a desire to retire from this no-win situation. Both of his predecessors, Barack Obama and Trump, considered leaving, with Trump even planning on an escape if he was re-elected. Victory, or something akin to it, was never really an option.

Withdrawal was a popular position – 73 percent of those questioned in a Harris X poll taken July 2-3 supported withdrawal, including 61 percent of Republicans.

It was obvious by the time Biden ordered the withdrawal that the situation was a lost cause. The Taliban controlled about 35 percent of the nation’s districts and was advancing on additional territory. The government the U.S. propped up was dazzlingly corrupt and the conflict had turned bloodier – it was reported that In the summer of 2019, the Afghan Army and police force suffered their worst casualties in the two decades of fighting.

The U.S. shouldn’t have been there, involving itself in a civil war and assuming the responsibility of nation building, in the first place. Biden could have maintained the status quo, keeping about 2,600 troops in country, untenable as the Taliban rushed through Afghan troops as if they were composed of wet tissue despite U.S. training efforts. Otherwise, Biden was left with the choice of sending in more military personnel to extend fighting or cutting the nation’s losses and head home. He chose the latter.

The State Department dispatched the first of 19 alerts to American citizens in Afghanistan advising them to leave ASAP in April. Many complied but the situation was complicated by the Trump administration’s earlier decision to block the Special Immigrant Visas program for Afghan nationals, a statutorily required 14-step process needed to transport them out of the country. The backlog was in the thousands when the Biden administration took over during a rapidly deteriorating situation.

While all this was going on the Afghan government essentially collapsed, clearly establishing, as if there was any doubt, that the Taliban had the upper hand. The Biden administration was caught off-guard, thinking it would be months, maybe even a couple years, before the Taliban regained control. Those suddenly desperate to leave – even though they had been advised as early as April to get out – swarmed the Kabul airport hoping for an escape.

The result was the biggest evacuation operation in history. The U.S. managed to airlift 124,334 out in a matter of days via 787 flights, a remarkable accomplishment and a credit to the personnel who hung in and got it done.

It’s silly to think that in such an operation everybody would exit, but Barr, Comer, Trump and others are foaming at the mouth over those stranded. It turns out there are fewer than 200 Americans remaining behind, according to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Efforts will continue to extract them. Some chose to remain behind because they carried dual Afghan-American citizenship and didn’t want to leave relatives in the lurch.

Regardless, foes have used the situation to portray Biden in the worst light possible, a helpless rube in over his head. Critics, including Republican members of Congress, for instance, cited a video of a man dangling, perhaps dead, from a helicopter under Taliban control as an example of the terror Biden had wrought. It actually was found to be a member of the Taliban – very much alive — attempting to hoist a flag on a government building.

Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, and others, reported that Biden skipped the returning home ceremony for the 13 members of the military killed by a suicide bomb during the airlift operation. That false claim was made even before the bodies arrived on American soil. Critics contended further that during the event –- which Biden attended, by the way – he constantly looked at his watch, a huge breach of etiquette. He actually didn’t do so until the ceremony concluded.

And there’s the dogs. Claims were made that service dogs were abandoned. That also was unfounded.

Trumpists, members of what was formerly the Republican Party, are pulling out all stops – including making false claims – to undermine Biden. As a result, his popularity has dropped to about 43 percent.

Despite the belching of the orange ogre, this was not nearly the greatest catastrophe in military history. On April 6, 1862, the first day of the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War, for instance, America’s greatest general, U.S. Grant, nearly lost the Army of the Tennessee.

That opening battle was by any definition a disaster, a botched endeavor. Grant was caught off guard by Confederate forces led by General Albert Sidney Johnston and his troops suffered a stunning number of casualties. Entire regiments were fragmented and men fled in disarray toward Pittsburg Landing under brutal assault. The Army of the Tennessee was in shambles.

That night, around midnight, Tecumseh Sherman happened upon Grant standing beneath a tree in the pouring rain smoking a cigar.

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman said.

“Yes,” Grant replied, sucking on the cigar. “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

And he did.

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  1. Jeff Schlosser says:

    Yeah, we are out. Now the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and other terrorist groups can operate with almost total impunity in Afghanistan. How did things work out for the US the last time that was allowed to happen?

    PS: Trump was wrong too for wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan.

  2. Marv Dunn says:

    We could have stayed there forty years and there would still be the Taliban, the al-Qaeda, the ISIS-K, and perhaps other authoritarian cults. The people of Afghanistan have to solve their own problems. They haven’t been able to do that in centuries and I don’t know why we should even have tried. Our only real success was the neutralizing of Ben Laden and some of his cohorts.

  3. Richard says:

    The second article in a row being an apologist for your dear leader. Methinks Bill doth protest too much.

    Biden wanted the U.S. out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, to claim victory. A simple, selfish political move. He did not care how it got done, just so long as it happened.

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