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Our 13 young military fallen deserved better, but they died with honor and give us faith in their noble generation, which has had to shoulder the burden of its feckless elders. A war that began when most of them were babies ended in disgrace when they were killed along with nearly 200 Afghans in last week’s suicide attack at Kabul airport during a withdrawal that could not have been more botched.
As President Biden attended Dover Air Force Base Sunday for the “dignified transfer” of the remains of these first U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in 18 months, thankfully, there were no words.
We didn’t have to hear him say “the buck stops with me” and then blame everyone else for his mistakes or listen to the formulaic words of compassion that always end up being about him, as if losing a son to cancer, tragic as that was, gives him proprietorial empathy over the families of the fallen.
The words that cut through were not from the president but from two freshly minted Gold Star parents. Their grief was so raw that they gave in, at times, to the impolite rage that many Americans feel and yet the White House refuses to acknowledge.
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The chaos in Kabul is not business as usual. It is not the inevitable result of ending a 20-year-war. It is not the price you pay for evacuating refugees. There is nothing to boast about. Heads should be rolling. Generals should be falling on their swords. Yet all we get is smirks and sly spin from a White House consumed by optics.
The anger is not about politics, but about incompetence, lies and a refusal to take responsibility for bad decisions that began with the incomprehensible abandonment of Bagram Air Base in the dead of night last month, before all the civilians were evacuated.
The mother of Marine Rylee McCollum, 20, got personal Saturday, calling Biden “that feckless, dementia-ridden piece of crap who decided he wanted a photo-op on September 11.”
“This was an unnecessary debacle,” she told SiriusXM. “They had months and months to remove everyone from Afghanistan and they chose not to. And so they sent in freaking 6,000 troops and my son, through the laws of statistics, my son was one of the ones who just got blown up by a freaking terrorist bomb yesterday. So instead of grieving and crying, I’m just getting mad.”
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McCollum’s righteous anger was echoed by Steve Nikoui, the father of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, also 20. “From what I saw of the airport they were in, it looks like a turkey shoot,” he told Fox News. “It was basically chaotic and not really planned out. I’m a carpenter and even I could spot that with my untrained military eye.”
He faulted the decision to have Taliban providing security for the airport. “I blame my own military leaders … Biden turned his back on him.”
Biden turning his back is a theme of his presidency. It’s the lasting impression from press conferences where he reads from a short list of journalists as “instructed,” then turns on his heel and shuffles out of the room, heedless of shouted questions.
So it was on the eve of the July Fourth weekend, when he waved away questions about Afghanistan. “I want to talk about happy things, man.”
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As he spoke, the electricity was being turned off at Bagram, and the last troops were slinking away in the dead of night. The looters got in before the Afghan army did.
That was the original sin of the withdrawal, and it has not been accounted for. It demoralized the Afghan army and set in motion its rapid collapse, leaving $85 billion of weapons for the Taliban, plus biometric equipment to hunt down U.S. collaborators.
Everyone sees the idiocy of abandoning a strategic air base with two runways and, instead, taking over a civilian airport, surrounded by hills that provide the perfect vantage point for enemy fire, with Islamist terrorists providing security for a vast crush of people funneled into entrances that are a perfect target for suicide bombers. It’s indefensible.
Bagram had a state-of-the-art hospital with three operating theatres and an intensive-treatment unit with 13 beds that could surge to 26 in an emergency. None of that was available after Thursday’s massacre.
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The president blamed his generals last week for the premature Bagram pullout. “They concluded — the military — that Bagram was not much value-added, that it was much wiser to focus on Kabul,” he said. “So I followed that recommendation.”
But that’s not the story Gen. Mark Milley and other top brass tell. The president gave them an order: Leave the country, secure the embassy, no extra troops.
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Closing Bagram, they felt, was the only choice. “Our task was to protect the embassy,” Milley said. “If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces. So, we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made.”
But there was another option. The generals could have told the president how calamitous closing Bagram would be to the mission — and ultimately to his place in history — and resigned if he did not listen. A debacle may have been averted and their honor would be intact.
Why they didn’t do that was the burning question asked by a real leader, Marine Corps battalion commander Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller.
“Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, ‘Hey, it’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic air base, before we evacuate everyone’?” he asked the day of the massacre in a Facebook video that got him fired.
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“I have been fighting for 17 years. I am willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders: I demand accountability.”
That’s the least 13 dead American heroes deserve.
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