Thirty-six years ago, a young Afghan girl peered through haunting green eyes from the cover of National Geographic’s June issue. She was Sharbat Gula, orphaned during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in 1984 she, her siblings, grandmother, and scores of other refugees had fled on foot toward Pakistan. The iconic photo, shot in a tent school on the mountainous border of the war-torn nation, drew world attention to the plight of the refugees.
Decades later, in 2017, Sharbat, along with hundreds of thousands of displaced others, returned to Afghanistan. She returned to a country that had entrusted its security to America.
We betrayed Sharbat and her people.
When Islamic terrorists orchestrated the horrifying events of September 11, 2001 on our soil, American lives were changed forever. The Wahhabi Islamic terrorist group, al-Qaeda, hijacked four planes – two hit the Twin Towers and brought them crumbling to the ground; one hit the Pentagon; and one, diverted from its probable course to the White House or Capitol Building, crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
We responded with the War on Terror, which then-President Bush described as “A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.” We quickly identified Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, as the mastermind behind 9/11 and sought his capture. When the Taliban refused to expel al-Qaeda and extradite bin Laden, we invaded Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power. America would help the innocent people of Afghanistan recover from a reign of terror, we said, and help them form a new government to represent all Afghans, including women.
For me, the twenty years that followed – with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – have been eerily reminiscent of a much earlier war.
Fifty years ago, from 1968 to 1970, I served in Vietnam. Not only did I serve: I volunteered.
Dirt poor and with few prospects, I’d grown up in a sharecropper cabin in rural South Carolina. I saw opportunities in the Army, for education and a better life. And I believed wholeheartedly in the American dream.
I completed two tours of combat duty in the Vietnam War. I accepted the toughest assignments, and commanded some of the toughest units. I learned leadership skills beyond anything I’d ever expected. I learned to lead based on the values of our Founding Fathers, such as Truth, Vision, Respect, Courage, and Tolerance. I learned how to instill determination in my troops to survive.
And I learned something else: the American government really didn’t have a plan for success in Vietnam. And I know now it never really had a plan for its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, either.
There’s one difference, though, between Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the Muslim world, extremists have existed for thousands of years; extremism dates back to the 7th century. Whether these groups go by the name Taliban, Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIL, Daesh, Hezbollah or some other moniker, they are defined by their hatred of freedom and choice, and their brutality.
They believe it is acceptable to use civilians as human shields and operate militarily from schools, mosques, hospitals, and homes. They oppress women and children, restrict their schooling, healthcare, freedom of movement and other basic rights, and inflict violent punishments for infractions. They appropriate food, supplies and funding sent by relief agencies.
It is utter arrogance from the highest levels of our government to think that after we withdrew our troops from Afghanistan these extremists would be passive. I agree with the decision to withdraw our troops, but how it is being done is dangerously naïve, sickeningly so, and in my opinion will lead to more of what we experienced on 9/11.
According to the Cost of War Project, the DoD spent an estimated $2 TRILLION in Afghanistan. This doesn’t count the billions it will continue to cost, such as medical care for the injured. What a waste.
As a veteran and a registered Democrat, I am disappointed with our Commander-in-Chief and his advisors for their lack of leadership or exit strategy leaving no one behind. Back in Vietnam, I would have given my life for my country. As another anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, I feel the same: I would defend our country and our citizens to the death.
What I can’t defend is Biden’s nonsensical retreat that coincided with one of the darkest days in our history.
And, I can’t defend the betrayal of Sharbat Gula and her people. Letting down nations we’d sworn to protect? The United States seems to do that quite often.
Written by Dr. Jim White.
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