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A Series of Sad Thoughts on a Dreadful Day
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A Series of Sad Thoughts on a Dreadful Day

As an American retreat becomes a tragedy, a few points to ponder.

As I’ve been watching the terrible events unfold in Kabul, I’ve been struggling with the fact that I’ve also got a writing deadline. Today is newsletter day, but honestly, what can one say while dreadful events are unfolding on the other side of the world? My mind is a jumble of scattered ideas. Some of them, however, might be worth sharing and discussing in the comments below.

I don’t know if you follow or read my dear friend Jay Nordlinger at National Review, but he writes a column called “Impromptus,” where he shares a series of thoughts. He does it beautifully, and I can’t hope to match his style. But with due apologies to Jay, here are my “impromptus” on a dreadful day.

First and foremost, God bless the families of the fallen. Whenever I see breaking news of an attack on troops abroad, my mind flashes back to the procedures we had in place during my deployment in Iraq. The instant we suffered a fatal casualty, we pulled the plug on all communications back home. It was called a “blackout,” and it triggered a wave of dreadful anxiety in every household in the squadron. Someone was going to get a knock on their door.

There are families who are right now waiting. They’re calling other families. They’re texting. “Have you heard anything?” “What do you know?” And there are troops abroad who are desperate to reach out and say that they’re okay, to ease a mother’s or a wife’s fears. But they can’t. They have to wait. Everyone has to wait. And the waiting tears them up inside.

As we watch events unfold, two things are true at once. First, military retreats and defeats are always terrible, bloody, and chaotic affairs. I’m skeptical of anyone who Monday-morning quarterbacks to the extent that they argue we could have pulled out without the collapse of the Afghan Army and the attendant chaos that occurred. A true “fighting retreat” by the Afghan Army would have required permitting the Afghan Army to fight the way it had trained to fight—with American support. But pulling American support was the whole point of this retreat.

I’m especially wary of any argument that says we could have pulled out more slowly while taking out or destroying the billions of dollars of valuable military equipment the Taliban has seized. The vast majority of the equipment the Taliban seized was Afghan Army gear, and pulling out while also taking the Afghan Army’s equipment and weapons was not only beyond the capability of our meager force, it would also strip our allies of the capacity to fight.

Second, however, to say that military retreats and defeats are always bloody and chaotic does not excuse the Biden administration of responsibility for its particular incompetence. Simply put, if it was determined to pull out (and it absolutely was and is), then it should have put in place a plan to control for one of the obvious potential outcomes, the rapid loss of territory to the Taliban and the collapse of allied morale and allied forces.

Yes, our airlift has been Herculean and heroic, but it’s conducted under circumstances no military commander would envy, in the face of vulnerabilities that are now devastatingly clear.

Speaking of incompetence, I strongly believe that our nation’s polarization and negative partisanship enables much of the disarray we see today. As our partisan culture places more emphasis on “fighting” than governing—or even changes a politician’s prime job description from governing to “fighting”—expect to see the political class adjust its priorities to meet the market demand.

“He’s not Hillary” or “He’s not Trump” may be necessary for partisan political support, but should hardly be sufficient.

At the same time, however, it’s encouraging to see Biden’s approval rate plunging. Not because I have any particular partisan rooting interest in Biden’s defeat (remember, I’m politically homeless). In fact, I don’t want to see yet another American president fail. Instead, the plunge signals that there is no Biden political cult, and he just might be vulnerable to actual political consequences for actual strategic failures.

I’m hopeful that the incredible stability of Trump’s approval rating (negative as it was) is an artifact of his unique cult of personality rather than a permanent feature of American politics.

Speaking of Trump, there’s a wave of folks online who are arguing that he’d never preside over a disaster like this. This speculation strikes me as both useless and fantastical. Here’s what we know—Trump wanted out, and he wanted to get out sooner than Biden. In fact, he agreed to leave in May, and he recently bragged about putting in place a process that Biden “couldn’t stop.”

You may think that the Trump administration would have pulled out faster and better than Biden, but expressing that view with any degree of certainty strikes me as nothing more than partisan wishcasting. Let’s not forget that not only did Trump pull the rug out from under the Afghan government in his peace talks with the Taliban, he actually reinforced the Taliban by releasing Taliban prisoners.

Let’s also not forget his precipitous retreat from most of northern Syria, which included the abrupt abandonment of the Kurds, our best allies in the Middle East apart from Israel. And who can forget when Russians videotaped themselves taking control of a hastily-abandoned military base?

I’ll repeat my grave concern that today’s terrible attack on American troops was no mere parting shot at retreating American forces but rather the explosive start of the next phase of the war. My former National Review colleague Andy McCarthy stated the emerging challenge very well:

If our long war on terror has taught us anything, it’s that granting terrorists safe havens exponentially magnifies the terror threat. Jihadist campaigns take time and resources to plan. It’s no coincidence that the 1998 American embassy bombings in Africa, the near-sinking of the USS Cole in 2000, and the 9/11 attacks took place when jihadists enjoyed the “time and space to operate” that Andy describes.

More recently, it’s also no coincidence that a wave of terror attacks shook Europe at the same time that ISIS captured and held a nation-sized chunk of Iraq and Syria. In that circumstance, ISIS not only planned attacks, it inspired attacks and/or plots here in the United States, including the deadly Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting.

Finally, we’re hearing echoes of the 1970s. After a corrupt GOP presidency (and a short Gerald Ford interlude), a Democratic president won an election promising to restore the honor of the presidency, but the job was too big for him. One of my earliest political memories was the Iran Hostage Crisis and the horrific Desert One fiasco. It was a dark time, and we did not know that “Morning in America” would dawn soon.

May a national morning dawn again. The darkness of the moment is difficult to bear.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.