Rooting out global terrorism is not synonymous with imperialist hubris.
And those who strive for power through suicide bombings thrive in violent, nondemocratic societies, the kinds of places where leaders talk to their people with an AK-47 at their side.
We hope that pair of salient truths are being remembered at the White House as America mourns the loss of 13 American service members, killed along with some 200 Afghan men, women and children by a brutal terrorist attack outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Especially as we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the attack represented one of the worst days for U.S. casualties in the entire 20-year operation in Afghanistan, it does not appear to have been carried out by the Taliban, the long-standing adversary in that profoundly flawed campaign. It was the work of a third party, a yet-more-extreme group with a vested interest in undermining the Taliban’s apparent victory.
When President Joe Biden announced the symbolic date of Sept. 11 as the end of the U.S. military’s engagement in Afghanistan, he was intending to send a signal of some kind of completion to what once was known as a war on terror or, at the very least, an acknowledgment that a definitive decision had been made about a war that no longer matched U.S. interests. A decision made from a position of strength.
Instead of signaling that the events of 9/11 were in the rearview mirror, the perpetrators hunted down, Americans have seen the specter of terrorism hurtling back into sight. There might not be direct evidence of ISIS planning attacks on U.S. soil, but only a fool would see such a move as impossible. The group has often encouraged so-called lone wolves.
For centuries, Afghanistan has been a quagmire for nations such as Britain, Russia and the United States. Biden’s belief that it had to end, that it was not worth more American lives over many more years, is entirely defensible.
But now he has to face, and own, the inconvenient truth that terrorists love to fill a power vacuum. They cannot be allowed to prevail. And the fight against them will need to be waged not just by the U.S., but by its long-standing allies. Biden’s rhetoric needs to become more inclusive of those allies.
U.S. media in recent days has portrayed the long engagement in Afghanistan as reflective of a naive and hubristic assumption that Western democracy can be exported. Some have portrayed the Taliban as changed rulers, newly dedicated to moderation and willing to respect, say, the rights of girls and women to an education and to full participation in society.
Time will tell there, and we think any such possibility will require the judicious application of America’s leverage.
But an inconvenient truth blew up in America’s face. This was the message: There are those to the right of the Taliban who specialize in terrorism.
In Afghanistan and beyond, the war on terror is far from over. All nations who believe in freedom, safety and democracy will have to reengage. There can be no withdrawal from that.