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Martin Schram, an opinion columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.
Suddenly, right here in the capital of our country that has long been running on high-test political vitriol, our leaders just steered us into a week of big news that was dominated by (of all things) bipartisanship!
It happened with such suddenness that cable TV’s talking heads were struck semi-speechless. Which is to say: They grasped the bipartisan basis of the biggest domestic story in last week’s breaking news — that 19 Senate Republicans joined all Senate Democrats in approving a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is hugely popular with voters.
But they didn’t showcase the stunning reality that the biggest international policy story also had a most bizarrely bipartisan foundation. In this instance, it is a reality that indeed shaped the news, but it will prompt no celebrations in America or most of the sane world. It will only evoke sadness within most of us, and probably despair among the rest, including those we honor by calling them Gold Star families.
We are seeing unfolding at a stunningly swift pace was what seems destined to become a tragically unsatisfactory ending to America’s longest-ever war. Future generations may even be so confused by what just happened that they will think this must have been a bizarrely bipartisan Trump-Biden ending to America’s 20-year Afghanistan War.
After all, before his 2020 reelection defeat, President Donald Trump unilaterally announced he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Last spring, President Joe Biden announced that he would do what Trump had promised to do, but just take a few months more — and withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 (a date that lives in infamy in U.S. hearts and minds). Then Biden moved it even closer, Aug. 31 — and he has already removed all U.S. combat forces and most of the rest as well.
Biden withdrew some 3,500 remaining U.S. troops, and America’s NATO allies withdrew their 7,000-plus forces from Afghanistan. Earlier this year, those U.S. forces in Afghanistan recorded a full year with zero combat deaths. Since the U.S.-NATO combat forces left, the Taliban fighters have returned to their old ways. Their mere presence deterred the Taliban from attacking. No more.
What we saw in recent days is the Taliban fighters capturing Afghan provincial capitals, one after another, with seemingly little opposition from the Afghanistan government’s military that has been funded by $837 billion from the U.S. taxpayers and trained by the U.S. military over two decades. What really happened was that many of the Afghan military troops U.S. forces trained ran away when the Taliban got near, abandoning their weapons and costly U.S. supplied equipment. That’s the way it has happened for months. Taliban fighters have been seen using U.S. weaponry, equipment and vehicles. Afghan military aircraft (U.S. supplied) are not flying.
Earlier this month, we also heard assessments from stunned present and former U.S. military and diplomatic officials acknowledging that the Taliban may soon be able to recapture the capital city of Kabul in 90 days — maybe sooner. And, the U.S. officials conceded, that means the Taliban may well be able to regain control of the country they were running back on Sept. 11, 2001, when the al-Qaida terrorists, who operated from Afghan sanctuaries with Taliban approval, attacked the U.S. homeland.
BushCheneyRumsfeld invaded after 9/11, defeated al-Qaida and routed the Taliban. But they merely went next door, where Pakistan’s intelligence arm gave them sanctuary and they reconstituted.
The Taliban are terrorists who rule according to fundamentalist Islamist law, administered by their iron fists and beheading swords. If they rule as they have before, they will ban all the Afghan girls from going to the schools they now happily attend. And they may well give sanctuary again to al-Qaida and other terrorists who will also return to their terrorist ways.
And we heard from two presidents about what they think must happen if the Taliban are to be prevented from seizing power.
Biden, asked by a reporter if he will alter his troop withdrawal in light of the Taliban’s swift successes, said: “No. Look, we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces. And Afghan leaders have to come together. … They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan posted a tweet calling on his country’s civilians to join, not his own military, but “popular uprisings.” He hopes they will fight for Afghanistan’s regional warlords, who then (maybe!) will agree to fight to prevent the Taliban from conquering the capital city.
It has come to that.