As we approached President Joe Biden’s deadline for withdrawing U.S. military forces from a two-decade war in Afghanistan, Americans learned that virtually everyone with a social media account or platform of any sort is an undiscovered expert on military strategy and diplomacy.
The fog of war was supplanted by the smoke screen of jibber-jabber, with armchair Sun Tzus declaring our withdrawal from Afghanistan everything from a bold decision to a catastrophic, impeachable offense. It’s not clear how an accountant tweeting under a fake name, knows exactly what Biden did right or wrong, but as long as he tweets it hard enough and other resident experts share his thoughts and weigh in with their own, it all becomes fact-ish.
It joins the noisy chorus—with voices coming from left, right and center—that drowns out actual news, such as this:
“Yesterday, 26 U.S. military aircraft, all C-17s, departed with approximately 1,700 evacuees,” Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor said during a Monday morning briefing. “As of today, more than 122,000, including 5,400 Americans, have been evacuated from Afghanistan.”
By Monday afternoon, the last U.S. troops left the country, bringing an end to Americas’ longest war.
Our armed forces have managed, in a month, to move more than 122,000 human beings out of a wildly unstable, war-torn country under constant threat of attack.
That fact seems to have gotten lost.
Forget for a moment the political recriminations and finger-pointing and the need to assign blame to this administration, or the one before it, or the one before that, or the one that took us to Afghanistan in the first place.
Historians will dissect the messy, and tragically deadly, end of this war with a full understanding of all that happened, and voters will punish the politicians they believe failed.
But right now, we’re in a moment where something truly remarkable has happened, and it’s worth pausing to reflect on the bravery and skill of our military women and men.
Tom Mockaitis, a history professor at DePaul University and an expert on terrorism and insurgencies, described what we saw in Afghanistan as “a herculean effort.”
“Not since the end of the Vietnam War have we seen anything on the scale of what we’re seeing now,” he said. “They kicked it into a high gear very, very rapidly. They got troops in quickly, they deployed the 82nd Airborne. They secured the perimeter, flights have been coming and leaving nonstop. The optics aren’t very good. There are ugly scenes on the roads to the airport. But the effort is now functioning very, very well.”
Robert Bateman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and military historian, pointed out that the U.S. military developed a doctrine for what it now calls a “noncombatant evacuation operation,” or NEO, at the end of the war in Vietnam.
Since then, no NEO has been on the scale of what we saw in Vietnam or what we’ve been watching in Afghanistan.
“We’ve done humanitarian evacuations, from volcanos and hurricanes and stuff like that where we’ve helped a host nation,” Bateman said. “But how do you get 100,000 some odd people out? The Army and the Marine Corps are out of practice, and the Navy and Air Force are out of practice. There aren’t a lot of people on the planning staff in the Army who were even trained on this. But they’ve been rapidly relearning.”
Truly, the speed with which the military turned this evacuation operation around was striking.
“We have the capacity and we have the system back in play in an amazingly short time,” Bateman said. “And hats off, especially to the Air Force, and God that hurts me to say.”
He also noted the small size of the Kabul airport: “That airfield has just one runway. You’re not talking about JFK.”
Rob Thompson is a military historian at Army University Press in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and an expert on the Vietnam War.
He said the logistics of what our armed forces accomplished in Afghanistan are mind boggling.
“It’s very complicated,” he said. “You have to secure the site you’re operating out of. You have to have maintenance capabilities. You have to have the aircraft themselves coming in and out, air traffic control. There’s all the stuff you normally have for an airport, plus all the additional stress because you have people desperate to get onto an aircraft, and you don’t know if you’re going to get fired on.”
And again, you have one runway.
While there have been comparisons between the Afghanistan evacuation and the evacuation during and before the fall of Saigon in Vietnam, Thompson said there are key differences.
“Everything fell apart (in Afghanistan) a lot faster than anyone expected,” he said. “It seemed there wasn’t much anticipation for this to happen this quickly. But the response seems to have taken hold really fast, within a matter of days, with a large number of people getting out.”
He continued: “This response is probably unprecedented.”
As we saw with the 13 U.S. troops killed in a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport, the mission was horrifically dangerous.
But we should all take time away from yelling at each other to appreciate the bravery, the skill and the staggering, almost miraculous nature of what we’ve witnessed. The women and men in uniform in Afghanistan saved tens of thousands of lives before our eyes, demonstrating the best of America.
No fog of war or fog of jibber-jabber should obscure that fact.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.