Talking Points

The dam breaks in Afghanistan

The horrific bombing in Kabul on Thursday was a stark reminder of why the United States has remained at war in Afghanistan for 20 years.

When terrorists murder civilians or American troops, there must be justice, punishment, and deterrence. But after a particularly heinous attack, it is difficult to ever feel safe enough to leave, and the mission can quickly grow beyond what is militarily achievable.

Precisely because the nation-building failed so spectacularly, there was always the risk of ugly scenes after withdrawal. Our forces in Afghanistan were like Hans Brinker, the little boy who tried to save his country by putting his finger in the leaking dike. No president wants to be in office when the dam bursts.

President Biden appears willing to risk drowning to end the facade. Officials under him understandably find it hard to take criticism from predecessors who allowed this war to morph from the pursuit of the 9/11 murderers into a futile attempt to remake Afghanistan and then lied for years about how well that project was going. Biden is trying to complete the incremental shift away from this policy begun under both Barack Obama, the Democratic president he served as vice president, and Donald Trump, the Republican president he unseated.

Execution, optics, and politics all matter, nevertheless. The administration wants credit for a mostly successful airlift that has so far proceeded mostly without casualties. But the fact that both qualifications are now necessary — some people will not be evacuated, while others have now been injured or killed — forces them to argue the chaos was not their fault or that it could have been worse. Neither argument inspires confidence, which is a prerequisite for the patience the public will need to sustain a withdrawal from a forever war not just when it is easy and popular but also when it is difficult and controversial.

Biden did not prepare the country for the tragedies that would inevitably unfold as this sad chapter ended, perhaps because, despite his decades of public service, he was unprepared himself. We enter these wars to keep foreign nationals from killing Americans only to end up with Americans dying to keep foreign nationals from killing each other.

It's a cycle that should be broken, but when the dike springs a leak, there is always someone who comes along promising to build the wall.