“The answer is no.” That was the response, on Aug. 24, of Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen to a Sky News reporter who asked if the United States might be permitted more time to evacuate American civilians and their allies from Afghanistan.
Defense Department press secretary John Kirby responded: “I think we all understand that view.” Let’s be clear: Dr. Shaheen (as Sky News respectfully refers to him) was not expressing a view. He was issuing an edict to the United States of America.
A few days later, Islamic State terrorists launched an attack at the Kabul airport that killed 13 American troops and nearly 200 Afghan civilians. Perhaps Taliban leaders had thought: “If a few Islamic State fighters should slip through our checkpoints, Americans will be reminded that their time here is up.”
You should take with a grain of salt those reports claiming that the Taliban and the Islamic State are “archenemies.” They have theological and strategic differences but similar goals. That makes them more like rivals.
It cannot be emphasized enough: The American troops Mr. Biden withdrew from Afghanistan had generally not been engaged in direct ground combat since 2015. Instead, a small, residual force was preventing the Taliban from re-conquering the country. This is not unique: We currently have 28,000 troops in South Korea. Their mission: to frustrate the ambitions of the despotic Kim Dynasty, whom we began fighting in the 1950s.
The modest U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was essential to our Afghan allies – the most forward-leaning anti-jihadis in the Muslim world. Afghan forces may not have been “all that they could be” (to borrow a phrase), but they were fighting and shedding blood by the tens of thousands. They were succeeding in confining the Taliban to the country’s backwaters. When Mr. Biden entered the White House, the Taliban held not one of the country’s major urban centers.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Biden appeared to grasp that America has dangerous and determined enemies who cannot be appeased. In September 2004, he wrote: “Democrats understand that those who would spread radical fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction are beyond the reach of reason. We must defeat them.”
What changed his mind? Was he persuaded by the neo-isolationists who have become prominent at many think tanks and in much of the media? They are well-funded and clever – styling themselves as “restrainers” and advocates of “responsible statecraft.”
That the unrestrained and irresponsible Taliban would humiliate the United States – as they now have – was always the likely outcome of the policies they advocate.
Until the bombing at the airport – both predictable and predicted – Mr. Biden congratulated himself for the difficult and dangerous evacuation effort his poor judgment made necessary. “This is now on track to be the largest airlift in U.S. history,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki enthused last week. “I would not say that is anything but a success.”
In the end, several hundred American civilians are believed to have been left behind – stranded and at the mercy of the Taliban, whose leaders are doubtless pondering: “Should we further humiliate the satanic Americans, as the Islamic revolutionaries did in Iran in 1979? Or should we sell the bodies Biden has generously gifted us? What’s the going price for a captive infidel these days? How much tribute did the Ottoman corsairs of the Barbary Coast demand?”
In fact, a U.S. Defense Department report to Congress issued on Aug. 17 stated: “The Taliban continued to maintain its relationship with al Qaeda, providing safe haven for the terrorist group in Afghanistan.”
Similarly, a report from the U.N. Security Council’s monitoring team recently stated that “a significant part of the leadership of al-Qaeda resides” in Afghanistan. The two groups “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
Do you doubt that President Biden will offer billions of dollars ransom for any Americans taken hostage? Whether cash will arrive on palettes – one way President Obama sent funds to the rulers of Iran – remains an open question. Expect American money to be passed along to al Qaeda, just as funds sent to Tehran helped underwrite Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Although the American presence in Afghanistan did not transform that country into a liberal democracy – nor was it intended to – in some places, at least, Afghans enjoyed newfound freedoms, which they will henceforth be denied.
Yet proponents of “responsible statecraft” insist our priority must be to end “endless wars” by the simple mechanism of surrendering. Abandoning comrades-in-arms, they insist, brings no dishonor, and won’t prompt our friends to cut deals with our enemies at our long-term expense.
In truth, and it’s an ancient truth, wars – whether short or long – are contests of wills. What have President Biden’s actions demonstrated about America’s will?
And on what basis does he embrace the fiction that when America backs down, some higher authority will stand up to the world’s barbarians?
Consider what State Department spokesman Ned Price said to reporters just a few weeks ago: “[T]he world won’t accept the imposition by force of a government in Afghanistan. The world will not accept a government in Afghanistan that doesn’t respect basic human rights – the rights of women, the rights of minorities, the rights of Afghan girls to pursue an education.”
The question a reporter might have asked Mr. Price: “What world do you live in?”
• Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.
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