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Monday, August 23, 2021

Opinion: Afghanistan is a disaster of choice, not inevitability

Opinion: Afghanistan is a disaster of choice, not inevitability

President Biden, followed by Vice President Harris, arrives in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 20 to speak about the ongoing military evacuations of U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

“America has lost a war, and the consequences will be terrible. Yes, this happened in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, but it is not easy to find a precedent in our history for a calamity such as that unfolding in Afghanistan, where thousands of Americans — the exact number is uncertain — are suddenly stranded far from home with no simple avenue for escape.

Events have left many Americans in a state of collective shock. The video of an infant being passed from family members over concertina wire to U.S. troops at Kabul’s airport illustrated the profound desperation that is sweeping Afghanistan, and elicited an awareness that we have betrayed much and many in the past week.

We can be proud of our warriors and still be deeply ashamed of our country.

The Pentagon suggested Thursday that if Americans in Afghanistan — mostly contractors and nongovernmental aid workers now — could get to the airport in Kabul, their safe passage home was likely. The Pentagon did not explain how Americans were to get safely to the airport. The president tried again Friday to give similar reassurance and guidance to the trapped — and failed again. He told the world they would get home. He gave no guidance on how they could get to the airport.

This is unacceptable. Is there really no alternative to simply hoping for the best? “Trust me and the Taliban?” Really?

Then there are sensitive questions about President Biden’s capacity to deal with fast-moving events. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) commented early in the week that the president appeared “shellshocked.” On Friday, Biden played his favorite loop in the East Room, promising to bring Americans and our loyal Afghan allies home — but not really explaining how. He is stubbornly attached to his inner narrative and won’t budge from it.

Questions about Donald Trump’s temperament and capacity dogged his entire presidency. To age, as candid older men and women will freely confess, is to slow down from previous capacity, to grow fixed in opinions and habits. Biden is our president, and we only get one at a time, but we can ask that everyone around him make doubly sure he is getting everything older Americans routinely need as they age — particularly unpleasant advice when they don’t want to hear it.

Maybe especially when they don’t want to hear it.

The broad unease about the president’s ability to adjust to quick changes in facts on the ground is genuine, and the fact that he finally allowed four reporters to ask questions on Friday about his decision-making did not allay that unease.

The families of every American abandoned to the tender mercies of the Taliban deserve a president who is accessible and commanding, not one who seems uncertain or half-withdrawn. CNN’s Clarissa Ward, reporting with incredible courage from Kabul, should not be Americans’ best source of information on conditions at the Kabul airport. It should be the president, but his answers on Friday did not help him much or set many minds at ease.

This is very much a disaster of choice, not inevitability. The questions are many: What did the president not know about the political landscape in Afghanistan — and for how long has he not known it? What options did he solicit? Which did he decline? What advice did he reject?

It is also necessary to ask: What signal does this send to an increasingly aggressive China and Russia, and will they act on that signal? What does this mean for the perilous situations in Taiwan and Ukraine? And how did the United States get blindsided again?

For 20 years, the sacrifices made in Afghanistan were part of keeping the homeland safe. That shield has dropped. The president again insisted on Friday that we have over-the-horizon abilities. But, as one reporter asked Biden, if we didn’t see the collapse coming, how can we be confident that we will see the next attack on the homeland coming?

Finally, given the president’s argumentative and defensive speech Monday, refusal to take questions after a threadbare deflection speech Wednesday, the confused and confusing sit down with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and his halting do-over performance Friday, the Biden-friendly legacy media must press to learn what is happening behind the scenes. ABC News’s refusal to release the entire unedited tape of Stephanopoulos’s midweek interview with the president is unacceptable. The same degree of scrutiny that fell on every Trump move must follow this president.

At moments of national calamity, we all need to be respectful of our common citizenship, but difficult discussions must be had in public, and the president especially must be available and accountable to the people he has so long wanted to lead. This is not, as the president and his team may imagine, another sort of campaign crisis to be endured and overcome in a few news cycles. The oldest president ever must keep his circle expanding and information flowing in, with truth-speakers close at hand. And he must meet with the press again and again as the crisis unfolds.“

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