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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Editor's Blog

U.S. troops honor fallen comrades at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan

Photo by Defence Images is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The courage of President Biden's decision to bring our troops home from Afghanistan should not be underestimated. But neither should that withdrawal be mistaken for the end of the "forever war" that the United States and its NATO allies have endured there for so long. We will leave, but the Afghans aren't going anywhere — and our responsibility for what happens there won't disappear either.

Biden surely knows there will be bad prospects for the government in Kabul when our troops go, even though we will continue to finance its army and air force. Most Americans, who devote little attention to what happens in Afghanistan, probably don't know how limited the reach of that regime is today (which is why our veterans sometimes call it #Forgotistan). After two decades, $2 trillion and the loss of more than 2,000 of our troops, it scarcely rules over more than the capital itself. The Taliban and other hostile forces control the rest.

That obviously doesn't bode too well for the future, and as Biden also knows, his Republican critics will blame him should the Kabul regime fall. They will conveniently forget that his predecessor not only insisted on an Afghan withdrawal but also set a departure date too abrupt to be met.

No doubt Donald Trump will join that chorus, turning around and shamelessly attacking Biden for "abandoning" Afghanistan, because that's what he does. So will figures like Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military strategist whose insights lured us into Iraq, a far worse disaster than Afghanistan. Graham now predicts that pulling out will result in terror attacks — but the biggest threat to America is from white supremacists within our own borders, a menace he denies. We don't have to occupy another nation to fight extremist enemies here or abroad.

Biden's critics will also forget the most salient fact about the Afghan war, which is how it began. I will confess to supporting the initial invasion following the 9/11 attacks, because I regarded the destruction of al-Qaida and the punishment of the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden as essential to American and world security. Like many others who endorsed the war in its earliest stages, I have long believed that the administration of former President George W. Bush — obsessed with overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq — ensured failure at the start.

Yet honesty compels me to say that those few who opposed the U.S. action back then may have been right all along. After such a long and costly misadventure, it isn't certain that what once seemed imperative was ever prudent, or just. What could have been done and what should have been done are no longer relevant — except to the Afghan people, who have suffered gravely without any end in sight. More than 150,000 of them have died in the war, with almost a third of the dead civilians.

Those Afghans were innocent of the terrorist violence that struck our cities on Sept. 11, 2001, and that level of death and destruction seems like a high price compared with what happened on 9/11, a day I remember too well. While most of the Afghan dead were killed by the Taliban, that doesn't absolve our responsibility. We also owe a deep and permanent debt to the veterans who served — the great majority of whom want us to bring their brothers and sisters home.

Discharging that debt will oblige us to rescue as many Afghans as we can from the vengeance of the Taliban, especially but not only those who served alongside our troops. For years now, Taliban assassins have murdered Afghan interpreters and others who assisted allied forces. They ought to have gained asylum here, but the Islamophobic prejudices of the Trump administration put obstacles in their way.

Now that must end. The United States should grant "immediate refugee status to all Afghan nationals that have helped us in the last 20 years," says Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat. "We can't let them be targets." Gallego, a Marine veteran of Iraq, is painfully aware of how Iraqis who worked with U.S. troops there were later hunted down by Islamic State group killers. He is right to demand that we start protecting the Afghans left behind.

We can hope that Afghanistan fares better than expected, but hope won't save any lives. Already the Taliban, which has not improved with age, is assassinating those who might dissent from its medieval ideology. If and when its mullahs regain state power, they may well kill many thousands more — unless we welcome them to this country.

There is no other honorable exit from the forever war.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Talking about the challenges faced by the United States and its allies in a world always ambivalent about democracy, President Joe Biden said a few words the other day that bear directly on his own confrontation with authoritarian forces at home. What he aimed to explain is more important than any specific aspect of his infrastructure proposal or the debate over how to pay for that big bill's cost.

"It is absolutely clear," said the American president, that this era "is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies," by which he meant China and Russia but not only those major rivals. "That's what's at stake here. We've got to prove that democracy works."

Proving democracy works is no longer an abstraction for a civics classroom. At the moment, that phrase has a very specific meaning: Can we maintain, improve, and modernize the nation left to us by the greatest generation, now that we are painfully aware of its disrepair? Can we provide a decent livelihood to our people – all our people – and preserve an environment that sustains and nourishes them? And can we do all that in a political system that is free, competitive, transparent, and fair?

The Chinese and Russian autocrats, and their smaller imitators, openly mock those aspirations. China's leader Xi Jinping argues that only a party-led dictatorship can achieve high living standards and development. So does Putin, with less candor. The dictators are eager to test their power against our principles. And thanks to the partisan myopia of the Republican Party, now infected with a yearning for its own would-be dictator, we are in danger of failing that challenge.

To anyone who has observed American politics over the past three or four decades, Biden's warning is indisputably apt. Our political system suffers from a gravely diminished capacity to achieve important public purposes – let alone the massive national investment required to rebuild our physical infrastructure. When every major decision becomes an occasion to achieve partisan victory, rather than national progress, a closely divided America will remain paralyzed.

The chief vector of this paralytic illness has long been Mitch McConnell, the highest ranking Republican. Ten years ago, he could imagine no purpose more compelling than to end Barack Obama's presidency after a single term. While Democrats aimed to modernize the health care system and provide universal coverage, Republicans conceived their role as wholly negative and behaved accordingly.

They acted like termites – and that is exactly what they are threatening to do with Biden's infrastructure plan today.

Well aware of what polls show about infrastructure –and health care, for that matter – the Republicans offer lip service to popular preferences. Many Republican elected officials will endorse public works, improved transportation, safer water systems, even carbon reduction. They may then pretend to "negotiate" with Biden, but they won't vote for a program that he proposes or that Democrats can support.

What makes their reflexive opposition so dispiriting is that the Republicans know very well how desperately the nation needs the physical and economic revival offered by the Biden program. Whatever they mean by "America First," their political opportunism always puts America last.

The contradiction between Republican rhetoric and the party's termite behavior is drawn even more starkly when framed in a global context. While Beijing surely poses economic, diplomatic, ideological, and perhaps even military challenges to America and its allies, the Republican response is almost hysterical -- as if the "Chicom" hordes were about to literally invade our shores. Their answer to the coronavirus pandemic wasn't action to save American lives, but a racially tinged blame campaign aimed at the Chinese.

Yet if the Republicans believed their own warnings about China, they would find ways to support Joe Biden's infrastructure plan rather than trying to block him. For the past four years, their own president laughably and limply failed to address this enormous problem. The opportunity to now rise above petty partisan concerns, defend democratic values, and build the future is historic – and history will condemn every politician who fails again.


To find out more about Joe Conason, editor-in-chief of The National Memo, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com