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America's Afghanistan Withdrawal in Context

August 31, 2021

Sometimes a little historical context can put current events in perspective.

Two weeks after the fall of Kabul, the United States successfully extracted over 120,000 Americans and Afghans from the capital. But thirteen American servicemen and women were killed in a terrorist attack during the high-risk mission to protect the ongoing airlift.

Two weeks after the fall of Saigon in May 1975, President Ford ordered a military operation to free the crew of the container ship Mayaguez, merchantmen who were being held by Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia. Forty-one American servicemen, including three Marines left behind and later executed on Koh Tang Island, died in the chaotic, catastrophic rescue mission. As it turned out, the entire crew of the Mayaguez was safely released by the Khmer Rouge to another U.S. warship just as the military operation was set to begin.

Then as now, I like virtually all Americans mourned the loss of our troops, the final U.S. casualties in a two-decade war which also ended in defeat. I lament them still, just as I do the 241 Marines slaughtered in the Beirut barracks bombing on October 23, 1983 during the disastrous U.S. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon or the 19 killed and 116 wounded during the American invasion of Grenada ordered by President Reagan two weeks later.

I was devastated by the loss of 18 American troops in Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993, deaths in an ultimately unsuccessful peacekeeping mission launched by President George H.W. Bush and continued by President Clinton. In June 1996, I grieved with the whole country for the 19 American military personnel killed and nearly 500 others wounded in the attack of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, a home to U.S. forces enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq. I was saddened by the deaths of four American special forces troops in Niger in 2017 and relieved that that the Iranian missile strike on the U.S. air base at Al Asad, Iraq in January 2020 resulted in “only” 100 personnel diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.

Like most of you, I honor the memory of the 2,400 American killed and 20,500 wounded in Afghanistan (a war whose start and 2009 escalation I supported) and the 4,400 lost and 32,000 in Iraq (an invasion I opposed). I thought then and still believe that in both theory and execution the Bush Doctrine was fatally flawed. The failure of its three pillars—no safe havens for terrorists, preventive war to ward off “future” threats and democracy promotion at the barrel of a gun—now appears total.

But at no point did I call for the resignation or impeachment of Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, Trump, or Biden over any of these episodes of American defeat, humiliation and tragedy. I don’t recall partisans or pundits demanding George W. Bush’s removal after the slaughter of September 11, 2001, though I clearly remember his supporters proclaiming President Bush “inherited 9/11” and “kept us safe.” (I similarly have vivid memories of Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham suggesting President Obama should be impeached for swapping five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014, while Trump allies were silent when the 45th President did 1,000 Bergdahl deals with the Taliban in 2020.)

You can argue that President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was bungled and that his administration should have foreseen the rapid implosion of the Afghan security forces and the government in Kabul. You can insist that Congress should investigate the conclusion of the Afghanistan War. (I would agree with you on all of these points.) If you want to assert that the U.S. should have maintained a perpetual military presence in Afghanistan, have at it. But you cannot ignore the history that preceded the tragedies of August. And if you approach this national calamity as a political partisan alone, you will have done your country a disservice.

After his Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy took ownership for greenlighting the Cuban operation his predecessor started. “There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan,” JFK said, “I am the responsible officer of the government.” But that government—our government—is a democratic one. We, too, own what is done in our name. And those we have lost in its service cannot have died in vain because they answered our call.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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