Biden knows Afghanistan withdrawal is the right thing — despite political risks
One of the reasons I became an early supporter of Joe Biden for president in April 2019 was not just that I knew him well, but that I knew him well enough to know that when he believes something is right he will try to accomplish it, regardless of the potential political risks. For all of us who strongly support candidates, it is great when the main reason you support one is proven to be true shortly after he or she takes office.
President Biden did just this last Thursday when he made it clear that, once and for all, American troops will be gone from Afghanistan by the end of August. “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?” he said. “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
Biden is standing by his decision to pull out U.S. troops despite growing instability in the country. Thousands of Afghan government troops have been surrendering to Taliban forces without a fight, and there is widespread fear among the civilian population that women, including young girls in school, could face execution if they do not toe the line dictated by fundamentalist culture. Although it is true that pulling American troops from Afghanistan polls well with the American people right now, if these trends continue and the Taliban takes control of the majority of the country, leaving Afghanistan could become a political disaster for the president.
Already, Republicans have started to attack Biden for the pull-out, even though former President Trump indicated he would do the same. A more cautious man might have been unwilling to take this risk — and might have let American policy remain the same, not wanting to rock the boat — even though it might have caused further loss of American soldiers’ lives. Biden, however, without hesitation accepted this risk and, regardless of where you stand on the wisdom of this decision, his logic is absolutely undeniable. The people who want us to stay the course and continue to risk American lives cannot honestly say that if we pulled out two years from now, or four years from now or a decade from now, we could expect a different outcome for the Afghan people. That simply isn’t going to happen, no matter how much we wish it would.
Another reason that I so strongly support the president’s decision is my experience as governor of Pennsylvania. Of course, as it is in every other state, the governor is the commander in chief of the National Guard and that role carries many responsibilities. One of them I learned during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: to call parents or spouses of guardsmen killed in combat to try to offer some measure of consolation.
I will never forget the first time I had to make such a call. It was the first Pennsylvania guardsman killed in battle in a foreign land since the Korean War over a half-century ago. I reached the mother by telephone and did the best I could in thanking her for her sacrifice and telling her how much we appreciated what her son did for our country. She was crying and asked me almost incoherently, “Governor, what did he die for? Why are we fighting at all?” Of course I knew that one of our goals was to get Osama bin Laden, but as we determined later, that could have been done with one SEAL team, not tens of thousands of soldiers. Could I tell her we were fighting there to give the Afghan people a better life, and was there a reasonable explanation that any substantial improvements we made would remain when we were gone? I could barely get the words out; I stammered about how we were building schools for young women and were trying to leave them with some form of democracy. She thanked me, totally confused by what I said, and we hung up. I never felt so inadequate, before or since.
I remember another time when, while we slept in Pennsylvania, one of our units lost four young men who were literally dismembered by a roadside IED. The recovery of their bodies was difficult and they were later buried on National Guard land in Pennsylvania in one coffin. I was asked to make the announcement to the news media, who had heard rumors of what had occurred. I did so at a news conference in the governor’s residence, detailing the gruesome facts of what had happened. I closed by saying, “They were husbands, fathers, sons, grandsons, uncles, cousins — and most of all, they were four very brave Pennsylvanians.” I could not finish the sentence without starting to cry, and when I said the word “Pennsylvanians,” tears streamed down my face. It was a horrible experience for me, even though I had never met one of those young men.
I strongly believed then — and still do now — that America should never risk the loss of our sons and daughters unless there is an incredibly strong reason for doing so and a reasonable chance that if the U.S. accepts that risk, we can successfully achieve our goals. That isn’t going to happen in Afghanistan, no matter how long we stay, and perhaps it never was going to happen. Thank God we have a president who understands this and will do the right thing, regardless of the political risks.
Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.