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Will the ‘gut-wrenching’ airport scene in Kabul make it harder to fight terrorism?

President Biden said the war has ‘metastasized’ beyond Afghanistan. But can the U.S. gain the trust it needs to counter future threats?

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Fleeing Afghan people run alongside a U.S. Air Force jet at an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Hundreds of Afghan people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport in Kabul on Monday. Thousands of Afghans have rushed onto the tarmac at the airport, some so desperate to escape the Taliban capture of their country that they held onto the American military jet as it took off and reportedly plunged to their death.

Associated Press

“Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” — President George W. Bush, in a nationwide address to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks of 9/11.

One can exit in many different ways. Fleeing is the worst.

From this vantage, 20 years later, it can be hard to remember the intensity of feelings nationwide as the United States reeled from attacks that killed thousands of people in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

President Bush reflected those feelings forcefully in a speech that may have been the best of his presidency. He invoked what felt like a collective, nationwide, emotional release when he said, “I have a message for our military: Be ready. I have called the armed forces to alert, and there is a reason.”

That reason was an impending attack on Afghanistan, by air and land. And then, as promised, “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”

How would we have felt then if a crystal ball had shown us the scenes of this week? How would we have felt watching leaders of the Taliban reasserting control over the nation, with Americans pleading with them not to shoot and desperate Afghan citizens flooding an airport?

Since the mid-1970s, Americans have been conditioned to measure military endeavors against the failures of Vietnam. But never have the comparisons seemed more accurate than this week, with the nation watching chaos unfold at an airport in Kabul as if someone accidentally inserted a tape from Saigon in 1975. 

But the scenes were fresh, and now they are seared in our memories as a warning against future military endeavors.

The frenzied race, by thousands of Afghans, some of whom clutched the outside of a departing Air Force jet, a few so desperate for freedom they apparently clung until it was too late, reportedly dropping to their deaths from the airborne ship, remind us what is at stake in the global struggle between freedom and tyranny. They also should remind us of the limits of force and the dangers of a botched exit. How much of the world, seeing the desperation in Kabul, now wonders whether it’s safe to trust the United States? 

President Biden spent much of his speech to the American people Monday afternoon defending his decision to carry on former President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. He needn’t have bothered. After 20 years, few people of either political party seem willing to argue that point.

What he failed to expound on was this one sentence: “The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”

How did this gross miscalculation happen? How did the administration not know the Afghan government would give up? How did the United States not have a contingency plan for a rapid evacuation of personnel and allied friends who would be obvious targets for revenge? What will be the consequences?

Those are the questions that need answers, and those answers should be free from political taint. Trump owns part of this as well, having negotiated “peace” with the Taliban in exchange for a withdrawal.

Twenty years can ease hard feelings and tax a nation’s patience. But for those who may wonder whether the thousands of American casualties were in vain, the answer has to be “no,” they were not in vain. Biden was right when he said the Afghanistan conflict wasn’t begun as a mission of “nation building.” It was about making sure Afghanistan would not be used as a staging ground for future attacks.

Still, nation building seems to be something the United States instinctively drifts toward.

Two months after 9/11, I met with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, along with a handful of other editorial writers. He spoke at length about the nobility of America’s role as a standard for liberty and freedom in the world.

Indeed, the desire to extend liberty and democracy is noble. Among the best highlights of the past 20 years are scenes of Afghans standing in line to vote, including one man who returned to the polls despite having his right forefinger chopped off by the Taliban for voting once before.

But now that image, too, has been pushed aside by what the president accurately described as “gut-wrenching” scenes of fear and retreat.

In contrast to 20 years ago, as Biden said, today’s terrorist threat “has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan.”

The greater war, then, is not over. The worry is whether this fleeing exit will affect the nation’s ability to counter what might come next.