The bombings at the Kabul airport on Thursday is a reminder of a fundamental truth: War is an ugly, bloody, violent affair.
That may seem self-evident, even simple. Everybody has heard the "war is hell" cliché at some point. But it bears repeating at this moment, while Americans argue furiously about the wisdom of withdrawing from Afghanistan, because so much of the argument for staying depends on a vision of the war there being essentially bloodless.
"Mr. Biden's decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure," former Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote last week in a lacerating essay for The New York Times.
"In the last several years, the United States has maintained a relatively small force in Afghanistan, largely devoted to providing surveillance, logistics, and air cover for Afghan forces while taking minimal casualties," columnist Bret Stephens offered. "Any American president could have maintained this position almost indefinitely — with no prospect of defeating the Taliban but none of being routed by them, either."
There is something disturbing about the casual disregard for American lives underlying those statements: "Minimal" casualties means only a few soldiers killed or maimed, only a few families back home devastated by the loss of their loved ones. Even if you accept that idea, Crocker and Stephens and the other hawks aren't really arguing that the sacrifice is worth it, but rather that there won't be any real sacrifice at all.
The Kabul attacks demonstrate the lie of that notion. As of this writing, at least three U.S. troops were reportedly injured in the blast — and it won't be surprising if the casualty numbers go higher. As a number of commenters have pointed out over the last two weeks, a primary reason American forces have suffered so few casualties in recent months is because the Taliban expected U.S. forces to exit. If Biden had abandoned that commitment, the bloodless war would've turned bloody again. (For Afghans, of course, the war never stopped being bloody.)
Would it have been worth it? For a long time, Americans thought so. They don't anymore. The costs of the war — both in lives and in money — are now far more evident than the benefits. A new round of U.S. casualties probably won't change many minds.