Newspaper editor and author Horace Greeley is well known for his call to “Go West, young man,” encouraging the swell of westward expansion. But he also said, “Common sense is very uncommon.” I’ve already committed to what I believe is the common sense of withdrawing from Afghanistan, and by that I mean specifically the 20 years we put into nation building in this desolate land. Make no mistake, a continuing drone presence will be necessary for the foreseeable future as a deterrent against possible terrorist strikes.
Trying to resurrect a country so destitute, and so culturally unfamiliar to our own political, cultural and Judeo-Christian experience strikes me as a fool’s errand. But our national security interest in Afghanistan is another matter separate from nation building and it stems from terrorist threats. The use of drones is the best option for that work while keeping us at a tactical and strategic distance.
President Biden should never have made the virtually impossible promise to get all Americans out of Afghanistan by midnight Aug. 31. He and his advisors should have known that there is no such thing as perfection in the chaos that’s ever-present at the end of a war.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan claims that the embassy had been urging Americans to get out of Afghanistan for four months with increasing urgency, to avoid the risk of harm and the crush that occurred at the end of August. This reminded me of the yearly hurricane deniers who won’t evacuate because they want to experience the thrill of the pending calamity. They’re cut from the same cloth as the proverbial ambulance chasers. But apparently Americans had weeks of warning that they needed to get out, with many obviously either in denial of the dire circumstances or excited to stay by the circumstances.
Vietnam wasn’t the only other example of problematic end-of-war pandemonium. The end of World War I was replete with complicated chaos. The collapse of the German Empire, the ensuing chaos and destruction of countries that were a part of Germany’s empire, the so-called German revolution that followed, and then the unexpected seizure of Berlin by revolutionists. These were similar examples of failed policy and the lack of coordination among key players including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. The fallout of the end of World War I affected all of Europe like cascading dominoes, including Russia, which collapsed into the chaotic Bolshevik uprising and eventual Communist revolution overthrowing 300 years of Romanov rule.
Which brings me to World War II. As allies converged on Germany and its capital, Berlin, unexpected events triggered chaos, and especially embarrassment for the U.S. “Uncle Joe” Stalin broke from his shotgun marriage of convenience with FDR and Churchill by storming brutally into Germany and Berlin, with Russian troops unexpectedly raping and pillaging, seizing control of power plants, critical industries, and shipping valuable machinery out of Berlin back to Russia. Allied forces under the leadership of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower slow-walked their way into Berlin because of bickering among allied military leaders and because he felt that all parties had agreed on the new division of Germany and Berlin; so, why the rush? It was a big miscalculation and Eisenhower was heavily criticized for the slow walk, although history seems to have forgotten or forgiven him.
The effect of Stalin’s break with allies and threats to oust allies out of Berlin by cutting off rail and highways and power to West Berlin forced the impossible mission of feeding West Berlin with the airplane version of Dunkirk known as the Berlin Airlift. It was an unforeseen and incredible scramble to save our place in Berlin, Germany after the end of the war.
The war in the Pacific ended with the overwhelming force of the explosions of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One small story though, as to the unforeseen and horrible endings of war. My father-in-law was on a ship that witnessed Hiroshima. But his worst memory and recurring nightmare was that of Japanese women with their babies and children jumping off cliffs onto rocks, blooding the waters below, because they had been told that U.S. soldiers were unconscionably cruel.
We all have searing images of helicopters lifting Americans and Vietnamese collaborators from the embassy roofs in Saigon. History overlays perspective on that ending as it will on what has happened in Kabul, Afghanistan.
While we apparently still have a couple hundred Americans left in Kabul, it’s hard to know for sure. Many Americans never registered with the embassy either coming in or on their way out. We’re told that the Taliban have agreed to give them safe passage. Cautionary note… we believed Stalin, too.
On top of it all, a paradox is apparently emerging with the Taliban proactively working with the U.S. military to thwart ISIS-K, the real terrorist threat. The enemy of my enemy is my friend?
Bottom line is that we are out of Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war. It seems like the common-sense thing to have done, in spite of the chaos, pandemonium, disorder and disarray. And common sense may be, for now, uncommon.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.