A Fumbled Afghan Evacuation

“But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

– Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002.

The taxiing toward takeoff by that huge C-17 transport at Kabul airport as desperate Afghans ran alongside to escape the Taliban, with at least one dead after falling out of a wheel well, is the perfect tragic symbol of America in Afghanistan: We ran over ourselves.

That video says it all, like the one of the George Floyd killing.

And that’s the picture the Republicans will show over and over again in their campaign for the 2022 midterm elections -– the image of a weak, incompetent President Joe Biden. Oh, the humiliation, both for Biden and America.

The unrelenting GOP criticism already has begun, led by none other than the Republican who brought more humiliation to the United States than perhaps any other American in history, the twice impeached President Donald Trump.

“Biden’s botched exit from Afghanistan is the most astonishing display of gross incompetence by a nation’s leader, perhaps at any time,” he told a rally in Alabama Saturday.

And Trump should know about botched. (See the Jan. 6 insurrection, separating children from their parents at the Mexican border, bullying Ukraine’s president to get dirt on Biden’s son, Hunter, and urging Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” 11,780 votes for him, etc., etc., etc.)

“This is not a withdrawal,” he said. “This was a total surrender. We could have gotten out with honor. We should have gotten out with honor. And instead we got out with the exact opposite of honor.”

Trump praising honor is like Hitler complimenting Jews.

The Trump administration concluded a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw U.S. troops by May 1, 2021. There was no evidence Trump planned for the evacuation of other Americans or of Afghans who worked with the United States, The New York Times has reported.

“And he has claimed that he would have ensured mass evacuations from Afghanistan, even though aides say he never focused on the issue,” the Times said.

So much for presidential honor.

The incompetence of America’s confused and chaotic exodus from Afghanistan, despite the Aug. 31 deadline to get out, came as an unwelcome surprise and threatened to undermine the majority of Americans’ approval of the decision to end the hopeless, thankless, useless 20-year war in a remote corner of the world where the United States’ only national interest was to defeat al-Qaida following the devastation of 9/11. It succeeded at that mission and should have quit Afghanistan immediately after that. Iraq got in the way.

“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building,” Biden said recently. “It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” He’s been wanting for years to get the United States out of Afghanistan.

Similarly, the departure of Americans and their Afghan allies should have begun as soon as the troops started pulling out, thus avoiding a last-minute rush to evacuate everyone who wanted to be airlifted out. Members of the Biden administration responsible for planning the civilian withdrawals should be held accountable for their egregious mismanagement, if indeed there was any thorough planning.

Biden is trying to fix things by possibly extending the deadline beyond Aug. 31 and announcing Sunday, without providing details, that the perimeter has widened to create a “safe zone” outside the airport’s gates in order to hasten the transfer of people to planes waiting on the tarmac.

“Any American who wants to get home, will get home,” he said.

Though tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, tens of thousands more, including up to 15,000 American civilians, are waiting to leave. The delay in getting everyone out struck the thought that the Islamic State may stage a terrorist attack.

“The threat is real,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Sunday on CNN. “It’s acute. It is persistent. And it is something we’re focused on with every tool in our arsenal.”

The scenes at Hamid Karzai Airport, the clamoring people surrounded by little kids, the visible anxiety, may cost the Democrats politically, depending on the endgame of what so far has been a disaster. Congressional lawmakers reportedly are mulling investigations into the bungled withdrawal, including some who may seek Sullivan’s resignation.

“The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing – I don’t know how that happens,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulus last week.

Honest of him to be so forthright. But he should know how things like that happen because, as president, he’s expected to surround himself with the best and brightest.

Republicans, who like the military and its contractors generally oppose leaving Afghanistan, are characterizing the Afghan pullout as presenting the image of America as an unreliable ally, one that doesn’t have the patience to stick with its friends.

“You already have countries like China threatening Taiwan and saying that America won’t come to their aid,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on Fox New’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

“It’s not just damage in Afghanistan, it’s damage globally for the United States,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

And it’s not just the Republicans.

“Afghanistan definitely has entered the conversation in a big way,” the Times quoted state Sen. Jeff Jackson of North Carolina, an Army veteran who fought in Afghanistan and is running for the Senate. “It’s pretty clear there are concerns. They’ve seen the images we’ve all seen.”

Dante Bliss-Grayson, an Air Force vet who served for 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and a Santa Fe, N.M. native, told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper:

“We’re the one who left them (the Afghans) vulnerable. We made the wrong decision and we did it incorrectly. We should have pulled out, but we should have been more strategic. Video of people falling out of the sky from that C-17 – that’s embarrassing.”

It’s more than just embarrassing. It’s tragic.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.