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Opinion: Leave no one behind in Afghanistan

President Biden has pledged to conduct a thorough rescue operation. That will take a substantial commitment, but it must be done.

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A U.S. airman helps evacuees board a military airplane in Afghanistan.

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, an Air Force airman guides evacuees aboard a U.S. C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 24.

Senior Airman Taylor Crul, U.S. Air Force via AP

President Joe Biden made a pledge Tuesday to bring not only every American in Afghanistan back to the United States, but also every Afghan who helped the United States in its war effort, safely out of Afghanistan.

That is more than a worthy goal. It is essential. 

As Utah Sen. Mitt Romney told the Deseret News editorial board Tuesday, America’s refusal to leave its citizens and friends behind in armed conflicts is a defining part of the nation’s armed forces. It is critical if the United States wants to maintain credibility among its allies, as well as its enemies. 

Many critics and observers have posited in recent days that China and Russia are taking comfort in the humiliating way the Taliban has pushed the United States to retreat in Afghanistan, and how it seems to be hopelessly disorganized in efforts to evacuate its own people, let alone Afghans. Allies may be wondering whether they can trust American promises.

The president’s pledge may be difficult to carry out. He needs a rock-solid and thorough plan.

The Associated Press estimates tens of thousands of translators and other people who helped the United States remain in Afghanistan. Videos are circulating, showing chaos and violence among people trying to reach the airport. The AP also reported that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly told a congressional briefing that some Americans were being beaten at Taliban checkpoints. 

If Biden is serious about rescuing everyone, and we hope he is, that pledge must come with the determination to use whatever force necessary to get the job done. The president has said the withdrawal should be completed by Aug. 31. Now, Taliban leaders have said the evacuation must end on that date.

Setting a deadline for withdrawal is a bad idea, but the idea that the Taliban can make demands on the United States is worse. The president must make it clear that Aug. 31 is not a firm date, and that the U.S. will take as long as is necessary, committing whatever military strength is necessary to evacuate everyone it desires.

We agree with Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, who tweeted, “This should go without saying, but the U.S. Commander in Chief should not take orders from terrorists.”

All the political rhetoric about which administration is responsible for this frantic situation and what could have or should have been done is not helpful to the current situation. Those questions can be investigated and debated later, along with troubling reports that diplomats had asked the administration to begin hurrying evacuations much earlier, in anticipation of the Taliban’s offensive.

Indeed, the American people deserve answers.

But today, the focus must be on saving Americans and their friends, letting the world know that the United States has the power and the will to stand behind its commitments. 

Military officials have confirmed that U.S. helicopters rescued 169 Americans at a location in Kabul outside the airport perimeter. The Associated Press also reported that senior military officials said helicopters had transported a group of Afghans, mostly women and children, from outside locations into the airport.

Many more such operations will be needed. Should the Taliban attack or hinder those operations, the military must respond with the type of force that would deter future mischief.

Romney referenced the movie “Saving Private Ryan” to explain why the need to leave no one behind is part of the nation’s fabric. Many Private Ryans are left in Afghanistan. Every one of them deserves to come home safely.