On April 14th, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11th of this year, breaching the original deadline of May 1st set in the Doha Agreement. The Taliban has made stern warnings that any breach of the original deadline would be met with the resumption of attacks on American personnel. Biden issued a similar warning, saying that any attack during the drawdown would be met with “all the tools at our disposal.” And here is where the maelstrom pulls the ship back.
Seeing the extension, my mind swirled with the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death, Rode the six hundred.” In The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tennyson describes an infamous failure by a British light cavalry brigade during the Crimean War. A miscommunication led the cavalry to charge the wrong artillery battery, one that was well-defended, leading to a third of the brigade falling to injury and death. Tennyson describes a military blunder, leading to needless death, in a way that invokes images of duty, honor, loyalty, sacrifice, and glory. Tennyson could run the Pentagon’s PR Department.
My skepticism may seem exaggerated by my general distaste for war, but there is far more in the ether that gives me pause. After twenty years of seeing friends and family fight a war that started when we were children, with so many broken promises by both parties, my skeptical nature is a natural result of a system that favors profitable chaos to peace.
Our troop presence has gone up and down depending on the mood of the Oval Office, with soldiers simply being shifted around to our other perpetual fights in the region. Election promises have been made and broken. Congress has sat on its hands and made excuses while shaming anyone who prefers peace to war. If it were not for our election cycles, Afghanistan would never be acknowledged.
President Donald Trump came the closest to ending the war with the Doha Agreement, which established the soon-to-be broken deadline of May 1st for a total withdrawal of US forces and personnel. Regardless of whether his intentions were pure or if he even cared about ending our longest war, setting a hard date for a drawdown was easily the best move of his presidency. But even if Trump had won reelection, it seems unlikely that a full withdrawal would have taken place.
It was recently reported that the Pentagon still has active contracts with security, military, and service contractors in Afghanistan that are set to run long after both the May 1st and September 11th deadlines. Eighteen contracts were signed after the Doha Agreement and run as far as 2023. One contract was signed only a month ago. The prediction is that the Pentagon will either need to settle the contracts after a withdrawal, costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions, or face years of litigation, that will also cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions. We now live in a time when peace is a breach of contract. The unspoken solution to this inevitable breach is to maintain some military presence in Afghanistan to fulfill the terms of these contracts. Any of these will come at the expense of the taxpayer, but the latter will also likely come at the expense of young, American lives.
Every so often, I am told that our soldiers are fighting for our freedoms. I am quick to remind these persons that our freedom is not hidden in the mountains of Afghanistan but is contained within the individual. Our soldiers are presently fighting for these contractors, who currently outnumber our troops at nearly eight to one in Afghanistan. They are fighting for Boeing and Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman, politicians who benefit from these corporations in their districts and states, and the manipulation of geopolitical influence to the benefit of a chosen few. Profit is a wonderful incentive that drives innovation and service, but when placed in the context of something so perverse as war, it too becomes perverse.
Even if this new deadline is adhered to, the Taliban has made their position abundantly clear: leave by May 1st or face the consequences. With numerous pundits, politicians, and experts calling for US troops to remain in Afghanistan, the potential for ramped up engagement by insurgent forces would give the Biden Administration the necessary cover to further delay our withdrawal. At a minimum, this new deadline will lead to heightened threats at a time when our troops are at their most vulnerable. At a maximum, a forceful response, which Biden has promised, would require US troops to entrench themselves until it is safe to leave.
The decision to move the deadline from May 1st to September 11th is arbitrary at best and grossly symbolic at worst. Choosing to mark the twentieth anniversary of the national tragedy that prompted our initial invasion of Afghanistan seems purely political, with the speech most likely already written. The president may mark the day with an acknowledgement of the last boot leaving Afghan soil in a humble, emotionally stirring address to the nation. All while those troops get transferred to another part of the Middle East. It will be a terrific photo op utterly devoid of all humanity.
There also seems to be a subtle swipe at the former Trump Administration. By moving the deadline to an infamous date in American history, with all the anticipated fanfare, Americans will forget the Doha Agreement and Trump’s involvement. Biden will be credited with ending a bloody, unpopular war. Being neither a Republican nor Democrat, this is the kind of Machiavellian nonsense that I normally love to watch with a bucket of popcorn and a cold beer. But if this is even remotely a reality (and I sincerely hope it is not), we are once again seeing politics move young men and women like pawns on a chessboard, willfully sacrificing them so that the back rank may advance.
Our military does not fight for the glory of a king, but only for the protection of the people (in theory). As such, our military is subject to civilian oversight. Contrary to Tennyson’s words, it is absolutely ours to make reply. A recent poll found that two-thirds of veterans believe the US should withdraw fully from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Over half of military families want a withdrawal and eighty percent of the public in general believe, at a minimum, that our military footprint should be reduced globally, or at least not increased.
One of the tenets of the Just War Theory is “legitimate authority:” the implementation of war must flow from the recognized authority of the nation. The United States is unique in that the authority of government is meant to flow from the people, vested in our representatives. If the people no longer wish to fight, how can such wars be continued with any validity or justification?
Do not misconstrue my skepticism; I truly hope that the president holds true to his word and we finally end the needless and costly war that has been the pretext for other conflicts, the stripping of civil liberties, and the creation of long-term security threats. But if the end finally comes, I will not cheer. I will not clap or yell or dance. I will simply breathe a heavy sigh that will not come until the last American boot steps off. Until that day, I am compelled to assume the worst, because the worst has become the hallmark of American foreign policy. With another promise already broken, our continued presence in the region, and the likely continued presence and interference of the intelligence community, I cannot believe that we will be leaving any time soon. Into the valley of Death, Rode the six hundred.