US President Joe Biden (Photo: Bloomberg)
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What Biden can still save in Afghanistan


It was weird from the beginning. The withdrawal plan always seemed abrupt and arbitrary. Why did the White House think the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was the right date for a pullout? What picture of America do they carry in their heads that told them that would be symbolically satisfying? It is as if they are governed by symbols with no understanding of what the symbols mean.

The president’s speech Monday was what everyone called it, defiant. What was needed was a distanced kindliness—patience, an acknowledgment of the mess that was unfolding, an explanation of a way through, a reiteration of the soundness of the larger vision. Instead, blame shifting, finger pointing, and defensive claims of higher wisdom. He “inherited a deal” from his predecessor. Sure, things “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” but that only “reinforced” his conviction that he’d made “the right decision.” He’d told Afghanistan’s president to prepare for civil war, clean up corruption, unite politically. “They failed to do any of that.” There was no admission of mistakes or misjudgments. “I stand squarely by my decision. . . . We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency. . . . I’ve worked on these issues as long as anyone.” Unlike others he sees the big picture. “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past.”

What America needed was wise and stoic Lincoln after First Bull Run. What we got was more late-season Junior Soprano telling Tony and the boys they don’t have the vision and guts anymore.

In the interview with George Stephanopoulos he was even worse—dug in, standing by carelessness and painting it as courage. When he means to project strength he very often appears high-handed and merely mulish.

The reputational blow for the president and his administration will be severe, and so will the foreign-policy implications. On Wednesday Mr. Biden was condemned in the British Parliament by members from both sides of the aisle. Imagine that—our old ancestral friends, who fought with us side by side.

What can be done? I would say that when history turns dark, it can help to astound yourself and see the romance in it. History, after all, is the story of mankind: There’s a lot of derring-do in there, sacrifice too, even some high-mindedness.

The only right political path now is the humane one. It’s also the path to at least some partial redemption. Mr. Biden should see that his job now is saving the lives of Americans in Afghanistan and their friends in a major and declared rescue operation. If that means embarrassing himself temporarily by reversing decisions, then so be it. Humility never killed anyone.

No one knows how many Americans are in Afghanistan—you’d think we would at this point—but estimates are 10,000 to 15,000. They are U.S. citizens. They are our people. Our government exists to help them. They must be rescued, wherever they are. If we have to fight our way to them, we fight our way.

As for the Afghan translators and others who worked with us and with our European allies, the obvious should not need saying but apparently does. They threw their lot with America at some immediate cost and an enormous potential price. It is not only a national imperative but a human imperative to save them from retribution. America does this after its wars. It tried to save those who helped in World War II and Vietnam. Those refugees made excellent Americans. Afghan workers have for 20 years seen the idealism and good faith of our servicemen up close. They know us better than we know ourselves. They are not a burden but a benefit.

Mr. Biden, focus. Don’t be diffident and fatalistic, don’t be equivocal, don’t be forced by events. Don’t make the media and the military drag you to this decision. Take authority. This story is not going away.

Accept the chastening decision to send in more troops and air power if needed. Show that you recognize the emergency. Pivot away from process. Don’t “speed up Special Immigrant Visas”; that ship has sunk, suspend the rules. Get Afghans trying to flee to a third country, and sort it out there. Mistakes will be made; uncover them there.

Find and save the Americans who can’t get out. The road to Kabul airport should be smashed open and kept open by whatever means—whatever it takes. If Bagram Air Base needs to be reopened under U.S. control, reopen it. Throw in everything you’ve got. The administration, which is talking to the Taliban, should make it clear that this is what we are doing, that nothing will stop it, the rescue is going to happen. If it means blowing way past the Aug. 31 fixed departure day, blow past it.

Mr. Biden would fear this will make him look weak. It would make him look strong, and loyal. He will fear it will make him look stupid, always a concern of his. It would make him look like he knows what’s important.

Much depends on the attitude of Taliban leadership. Much, maybe more than we know, will depend on their ability to control their own hopped-up warriors cruising through the streets in American trucks. Can Taliban leadership control the situation on the ground? Can they make the fighters surrounding Kabul airport stand down?

If the leadership is thinking strategically and tactically—if—they will see the reasons it’s in their interests to let a U.S. rescue succeed. They’re on top of the world, delighted at their victory. They’ve already humiliated us; they don’t have to do it again right away. There’s no reason for them to want to keep a built-in simmering opposition around. It’s easier to run the country without them. They can always kill the stragglers later. Why should they want the picture of their triumph to be marred by new pictures of vengeance and carnage? They enjoy thinking they’re not barbarians. They want the world to think they’re not the Flintstones dragging their clubs but Taliban 2.0, cool players, real big boys. More violence will only complicate future requests for foreign aid.

But however things fall, the mood and needs of the Taliban cannot be allowed to determine events. We must do what we have to do. They must be made to understand this.

Here’s some romance of history. Dunkirk was a disaster: the British army trapped in France in 1940, the Nazis encircling and bearing down. Cunning Winston Churchill, with the complicity of the Western press, spun it into a triumph. A volunteer civilian fleet turned the Channel white-capped with its sails and saved our boys. It was splendid. Here’s to you, doughty John Bull.

Go save your people and our friends, and spin it however you want. If it works, no one will care.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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