This summer was to be our summer of content. A return to normalcy thanks to a rapid vaccine rollout and the return of the United States as the world’s preeminent leader after a successful and commanding show by President Biden at the G-7 summit in June.
Then last month, it all began to seem anything but normal. The Delta variant swung into action and started to overrun the country. And within the last week, the Taliban took full advantage of a rapid exit by the U.S. military and started to overrun Afghanistan.
The results? A return to scenes of hospitals and ICUs being overrun with COVID-19 patients and a tarmac in Kabul filled with Afghans and U.S. personnel frantic to flee the country. Harrowing scenes of suffering, desperation, confusion, and lost causes.
It would be impossible to explain what’s happening in Afghanistan in a single column. The history of that habitually war-torn country is laden with decades of tragedy, human suffering, and fits and starts of peace. The United Kingdom tried and failed. The Soviet Union, in more sinister ways, tried and failed, and now the United States epically fails.
After 9/11, 20 years ago, the United States, in retaliation for the attack on our country, sent forces into Afghanistan to ostensibly squelch al-Qaeda terrorist training cells that had sprung up in the country. For 20 years, our soldiers bravely battled malicious enemies, Taliban strongholds, and an unforgiving and uninhabitable terrain.
There seemed to be no end to the carnage and efforts at trying to establish a democracy. In the simplest terms, the U.S. military and the Afghan government's ragtag police force were about as effective as a Band-Aid at keeping equilibrium in the country. It was an extraordinarily delicate balance and one that was, in vulgar terminology, half-assed.
The American people and a number of influential political leaders, including then-Sen. Joe Biden, have for years felt that the U.S. had overstayed its welcome in the country and that continuing to fight a war in Afghanistan was pointless, because we were not accomplishing anything that was sustainable. Even though it was effective in 2011, President Obama was less than thrilled about approving the “surge” that for a brief moment in time restored some stability.
The Trump administration started the process of pulling troops out of the country, and last month, President Biden finally said enough is enough and ordered all troops out by September, which would be the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Biden had the overwhelming support of the American people. Last week, a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found 70 percent of Americans supported withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, with 29 percent opposed.
That question should have been asked in two parts. Would you still support the exiting of the country if it led to the worst-case scenario: the brutal overrunning of the country by the Taliban? Answers may have changed significantly, but at what cost?
With that 70 percent support, Biden swiftly pulled the plug, and then came the onslaught of the Taliban, in record time, overrunning the country and creating chaos and violence. The capital city of Kabul fell as Taliban troops rushed in.
President Biden said we would not see scenes reminiscent of the Vietnam war, when members of the U.S. diplomatic corps were airlifted from the embassy after the U.S. withdrew and the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. He was right. We saw far worse. Those images of Afghans running along a C-17, clinging to the plane as it attempted to take off, and more disturbing, the images of those who continued to cling as the plane climbed, falling to the ground.
It was as if the images of those who fell to their deaths came full circle from those horrendous images of people leaping to their deaths from the burning and faltering World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
How did America let this happen? How did it evolve so quickly to catastrophe? Why didn’t the Biden administration provide time for those Americans and those who helped us in Afghanistan to leave the country? Why was the Band-Aid so quickly yanked off?
Biden said he stands “squarely” behind his decision to exit the country, and many people feel he was right in doing so. But then he seemed to spread the blame around about why being in Afghanistan in the first place wasn't something he supported, and others did. But that’s not the issue. It’s the manner in which the military was removed — with haste and seemingly scant thought to what would happen after they left.
Anyone who knows anything about the Middle East will tell you that countrymen will not turn on their fellow citizens, but they will turn on America on a dime. So why did we foolishly expect that the Afghan military would fight back against their brethren? The head of security at the presidential palace (the president of the country flew out in darkness Saturday night) congratulated the Taliba, and even posed for pictures with those forces.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the real question becomes what do we do now? And is there any chance to save our diplomatic corps, allies, and interpreters? Is there any chance to save this war-weary country from inhumaneness? Can we protect the many women and LGBTQ+ individuals whose lives are surely at risk? How do we clean this mess up? And will Biden ever recover from those images of the crowded tarmacs and C-17s full of over 600 shocked Afghans and the Taliban running wild through the streets of Kabul?
And will America ever recover from the coronavirus? Will we continue to see hospitals being overrun with sick patients, almost all of whom aren’t vaccinated? Will the return to school this fall just unleash another torrid tear of the Delta variant, or another variant that might be more harmful? Because so many refuse to cooperate by being vaccinated and wearing masks, are we doomed to live with COVID-19 for years to come?
Dr. Tony Fauci has already gone public and predicted that we are likely to encounter a virus that will be resistant to the vaccine. There must be some worry from government and public sector scientists since booster shots will be recommended for everyone — not just those at more risk — eight months after their first vaccinations. We are already seeing teachers die in Florida, a student die in South Carolina, and scores of other school districts around the country trying to contain and cope with infection outbreaks.
Just as the haunting images from Kabul continue to play over and over again, so too will the video of hospitals with hallways lined with those sick from COVID and stacking patients in makeshift ICUs. The fear of the virus is starting to return, in full force, to Americans. What does that mean for the legacy of Biden?
In his speech yesterday, quoting former President Harry Truman, Biden said that the “buck stops” with him as president, and unfortunately that means that whatever happens during his term — good or bad — will stop at his doorstep.
Will Biden find us a way out of this summer of overruns? Will he be proven right, at some point, about removing America’s military from Afghanistan and ending the pointless 20-year war? Will he be able to save all those in Afghanistan from harm’s way? Will he be able to evacuate all those who need to be removed from the country since their lives are at risk? Will he be able to miraculously work with the Taliban to ensure the safety of those that remain? Will he be able to assure America’s allies and the world that he has this situation under control?
Will Biden be able to figure out a way to halt the incessant spread of variants of COVID? Will he be able to help school districts, through the support of the federal government, prepare and protect students who, as of this summer, are now more likely to be susceptible to the virus? Will he have the courage to push hard for a federal mask mandate? Will he initiate a “Warp Speed II” to try and develop a vaccine that will protect against future variants?
President Biden and his administration seem to be overrun with problems stemming from overruns. With the midterms a little more than a year away, will Biden be able to outrun all of these overruns?
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.