Afghanistan has been part of me since I walked out of the Pentagon shortly before the plane struck on 9/11. I was soon in-country for a brief mission as head of the Navy’s strategic anti-terrorism unit, experiencing a new type of war.
When SEALS brought Afghanis into camp in early morning hours, one banged his head repeatedly against the trees that served as stakes for the barbed wire strung around the prisoners. Asked, “What gives?” a SEAL replied, “Probably the village idiot; we have to take whomever tribal elders tell us are Taliban or Al-Qaeda for the bounty we offer.”
I’ve often wondered if this man went to Guantanamo Bay before we changed our procedures. Similarly, because U.S. intelligence said the enemy had purchased a large number of white Toyota trucks, any white Toyota truck became an automatic target for our airborne laser-guided munitions – until, finally, discretion in our rules of engagement evolved.
When commanding an aircraft carrier battle group later in the war, we were diverted to begin precursor airstrikes in Iraq, as were many other assets, from Special Forces to the U.S. government’s full attention.
Returning later to Afghanistan, I saw how the tragic misadventure in Iraq had impacted our efforts in Afghanistan. Subsequently in Congress, I listened as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified to what I’d seen on the ground: “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” This uneven approach to the two wars eventually resulted in a National Intelligence Estimate confirming that Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral” – from which it never could recover.
However, what I’d learned is that gaining hearts and minds would help “win” the global war on terror more than our military could ever do alone. Mindful of the 88% illiteracy rate of Afghani women, I helped create an all-girl, Muslim Afghani robotic team to lead 158 nations that we convened for the opening ceremony of the inaugural high school-age global robotic Olympics at Constitution Hall. Acknowledging the young women’s efforts, the Afghanistan government founded a girl’s STEM school along with innovation centers.
I corresponded with the team after the administration announced its planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from their homeland. But Monday’s headline said it all: “Afghanistan’s All-Girls Robotics Team Desperate to Escape Country as Taliban Takes Control.” One team member was publicly condemned by her town’s mullah for having taken a photograph with a boy during the robotic competition. What awaits her now, under the Taliban’s control?
Arguing neither the “why” nor “how” of the U.S. withdrawal, I want only to remind the Biden Administration that America’s greatest power is its power to convene, to bring together other nations and peoples for a common cause that serves us all. We did that, imperfectly, for many in Afghanistan over 20 years, particularly women and girls. We cannot now abandon them.
Before our last combat troops depart Kabul airport, those women and girls who dared publicly to join us – including lawmakers, journalists, organizational leaders and robotic team members – must be evacuated safely. There is no higher honor than for America to do what’s right for those who gave us their hearts and minds.
The writer, an Alexandria resident, served in Congress from 2006 to 2010 and previously was a Vice Admiral in the U.S. Navy.