There are an estimated 10,000–15,000 Americans in Afghanistan now who need to be evacuated as the Taliban seize control of the country. Anyone left behind could find themselves reliving the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis or the hostage crisis in Lebanon shortly thereafter. The Taliban are undoubtedly well aware of the leverage they could obtain by holding Americans hostage. Evacuation is therefore not just a pressing humanitarian matter; it is essential to preventing a bunch of Stone Age barbarians from dictating terms to the United States of America.
The Biden administration has not exactly exuded confidence in the face of this threat. On Tuesday, the State Department sent a cable to thousands of Americans in the country telling them to make their way to Kabul’s soon-to-be-renamed Hamid Karzai Airport (we already abandoned Bagram Airfield) but warning them, “Please Be Advised That The United States Cannot Guarantee Your Security As You Make This Trip.”
Then, in a briefing this morning, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that the administration not only does not know how many Americans are trapped in Afghanistan, they do not even know how many have been evacuated:
Worst of all, at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked about the U.S. military’s capability to get its citizens out of Afghanistan, his answer was jaw-dropping: “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.” You have to watch Austin deliver this line to grasp its full air of defeatism about a place where our military has moved about with some impunity for two decades, while General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a fellow Army lifer, stood by looking as if someone had just shot his dog:
The best Austin could offer was a promise to try, at least for a while: “We’re gonna get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated, and I’ll do that as long as we possibly can, until the clock runs out, or we run out of capability. . . . I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”
This is unacceptable. This is un-American. This is not what our Army is about. Can you imagine, say, Norman Schwarzkopf — to say nothing of Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur — giving that answer? What is wrong with these men? What have they been doing with the $700 billion we spend on national defense? What do they think that money is for, if not to protect Americans in danger, be they at home or abroad, civilians or military?
Hardly anything is more central to the ethos of our Army than the credo, “Leave no man behind.” When we evacuate or retreat — and even the best armies must expect do these things from time to time — no stone is unturned, no risk unrun to make certain that we leave nobody behind. That is drilled into every soldier from the very start of their training. Secretary Austin and General Milley have, between them, nearly 80 years of service in the Army behind them, a good part of that in combat. How can they have become so immersed in the culture of bureaucracy that they have forgotten who they are and where they came from?
Austin and Milley should be sacked immediately and replaced with people who know what their job is. Abraham Lincoln would have demanded their resignations, as he did repeatedly to generals who wouldn’t fight. He sacked his first secretary of war and exiled him to Russia. Joe Biden could take a lesson.
It doesn’t matter how hard the job is, or how strained the military’s capacity is right now. It doesn’t even matter if you expect from experience that the mission will fall short of its goals. You do not say out loud that we cannot guarantee the safe evacuation of Americans from the clutches of the Taliban. You do not even allow yourself to think it so long as you have tools at your disposal to prevent it. The lives of over 10,000 Americans and the credibility of the nation’s promise to protect them are at stake. The only acceptable answers in this situation are twofold, and they should be declared long and loud so that the entire world can hear them:
One, we will move heaven and earth to get every last American home safely.
Two, if even a hair on their heads should be harmed, we will paint the streets with Taliban blood on our way out the door in retribution. Recall the speech that Vito Corleone gives to the heads of the other Mafia families in The Godfather about ensuring Michael’s safety upon his return from Sicily:
In hours of crisis, nations and armies survive on a can-do spirit and a determination to overcome every obstacle. When the British Expeditionary Force was stranded at Dunkirk, Winston Churchill didn’t say, “Well, we don’t have the capability.” When the Royal Navy was short of that capacity, he put out a call for volunteers and sent civilian fishing boats — some of them even with civilian sailors — across the English Channel into a war zone under the threat of bombardment by the Luftwaffe. When the Soviets blockaded West Berlin in 1948, Harry Truman launched the Berlin Airlift; American and British relief planes flew 250,000 missions to keep West Berlin supplied, collectively flying almost the distance from the earth to the Sun. In 1942, when the USS Yorktown returned to Hawaii from the Battle of the Coral Sea needing months’ worth of repair, Admiral Chester Nimitz did not say, “Sorry, we do not have the capability.” He met the ship at the docks with 1,400 workmen who labored around the clock and put the carrier back to sea in less than three days, changing the course of the Battle of Midway. In 1914, when Paris was threatened, General Joseph Gallieni pressed thousands of taxis into service to ensure that every soldier he could find was able to get to the Marne to stop the German advance. In the fall of 1863, when the Union garrison at Chattanooga was nearly surrounded and starving, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did not say, “We do not have the capability.” He summoned the presidents of all the railroads to his office, worked through the night commandeering and personally rerouting their schedules, and had men on the move within 40 hours. Within less than two weeks, 20,000 men had reached Chattanooga with all their artillery, horses, and baggage.
And Joe Biden? He went back to his vacation.
Even amidst the collapse and national war-weariness at the end of the Vietnam War, Gerald Ford did not accept that Americans should be left behind and held hostage. When the merchant vessel the SS Mayaguez was captured by the Khmer Rouge and its crew held hostage, Ford sent in the Marines. When some of his Electronic Data Systems employees were taken by the Iranians in 1979, Ross Perot did not throw his hands up and say, “We’re a computer company, not an army.” He hired a private commando force, including military veterans working for EDS, and had his men rescued. Even Jimmy Carter at least attempted the same thing.
It was once a point of pride for great nations, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire, that they would protect their citizens anywhere in the world, and woe betide those who brought them harm. The most famous invocation of this principle came in 1850, after an anti-Semitic mob in Greece had sacked the house of David Pacifico. Don Pacifico, as he was known, was a Spanish Jew doubling as Portuguese consul in Athens, but he had been born in Gibraltar and claimed British citizenship. Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, sent a squadron of the Royal Navy to blockade Greek ports and demand compensation, even risking war with France and Russia on the principle. When called in the House of Commons to defend this, he gave a memorable speech that carried the country with him, saying that what was at stake in the Don Pacifico affair was “whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.” That was the same spirit in which Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines all the way to Tripoli to stop the Barbary Pirates, or that Theodore Roosevelt responded to the kidnapping of an American businessman, Ion Perdicaris, by a Moroccan leader named Raisuli by having his secretary of state declare, “This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” It was not so long ago that even such a redoubt of liberal opinion as The West Wing still venerated that idea:
What happened to the can-do-what-we-must-do determination of Edwin Stanton or Chester Nimitz? If you know anybody who has served in the ranks of the U.S. military over the past two decades, you know that the problem is not the men and women in uniform. If Joe Biden’s generals have lost that sense of their mission, he should find some generals who remember it.