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‘A Total and Unmitigated Defeat’

We have an obligation to begin thinking about how to mitigate the horrors that will take place within Afghanistan.
August 16, 2021
‘A Total and Unmitigated Defeat’
In this White House handout, U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris (on screen) hold a video conference with the national security team to discuss the ongoing efforts to draw down our civilian footprint in Afghanistan August 16, 2021 at Camp David in Frederick County, Maryland. In addition, the President and Vice President were briefed on the earthquake in Haiti. (Photo by the White House via Getty Images)

At this horrifying moment, if you’ve been at all involved in foreign policy and foreign policy debates, you’re tempted to write, to share your own thoughts. Others have written eloquently and insightfully over the past few days, and I’ve profited from reading them. But in my case at least, looking at this unnecessary and unfolding catastrophe, I’m overcome by the sense that, as the expression goes, there are no words.

So I’m not inclined to opine much at this moment.

Except to say this: The Biden administration and Congress have an obligation do everything they can to overcome all the bureaucratic obstacles and business-as-usual procedures, and to get as many Afghans as possible out to safety. This does not mean only those on the Special Immigrant Visas list. And if this means maintaining a military presence for more days than currently planned, or, for example, using the military to clear roads to the airport, we should do so.

And I’ll add this: Serious people in government and outside government also have an obligation to begin thinking about how to mitigate the horrors that will take place within Afghanistan, and also to mitigate the damage not just to American foreign policy but to the cause of all who defend or seek freedom anywhere in the world.

Otherwise, for someone like me who’s more of a reader than a writer, my mind goes to the words of others. In this case, it goes to a few passages from one of Churchill’s greatest speeches. I’ve always thought it may be a greater speech than his prime ministerial speeches, because here he stood almost alone, against his own party but not really in accord with the other one, defending an unpopular and (for the time being at least) losing position. The speech is the one he delivered in the House of Commons on October 5, 1938, after Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich with an agreement allowing Hitler to carve up Czechoslovakia. You can read the speech here.

Four passages keep coming to mind, which, I’m afraid—with all the necessary mutatis mutandis-type caveats—speak to the current moment.

1. “I am sure it is much better to say exactly what we think about public affairs, and this is certainly not the time when it is worth anyone’s while to court political popularity. . . . I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.

It is striking how many today can’t help but use the tragedy we’re witnessing in Afghanistan to court political popularity, by appealing to their own party or simply blaming the other. And it is striking how many today also seek to ignore what has really happened.

We should tell the truth. And the truth is that our Afghanistan exit is a “total and unmitigated defeat.”

2. “All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness.

As does Afghanistan—though of course things will likely not be silent in Afghanistan: The Taliban’s reprisals against Afghans who worked with America and the West, and who supported the Afghan government, will be bloody and terrible.

Czechoslovakia didn’t really emerge from the darkness for 50 years. Let us hope—let us work to see that—Afghanistan does so far, far sooner.

3. “I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week—I do not grudge them the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth.

Similarly, one should not grudge the American people a sense of relief to be rid of a war of twenty years. But they should know the truth. What has happened this August is a stain on American honor, a defeat for American interests, and a retreat that makes our future more dangerous.

4. “And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

This great peroration speaks for itself.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.