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Colin Powell’s Bad Memory

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (R) takes part in an onstage interview with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson (L) at the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, September 30, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Yesterday’s Washington Post  scoop that President Biden intends to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 closes with the following quote from former secretary of State Colin Powell: “I’d say we’ve done all we can do. . . . What are those troops being told they’re there for? It’s time to bring it to an end.”

After all, Powell went on, the Soviet Union “did it the same way. They got tired, and they marched out and back home. How long did anybody remember that?”

Actually, some people remembered it for quite a while. “Those who carried out the jihad in Afghanistan did more than was expected of them because with very meager capacities they destroyed the largest force [re: the Soviets] and in doing so removed from our minds this notion of stronger nations,” a Saudi mujahideen named Osama bin Laden told Al Jazeera in 1998.

Four years later, after he orchestrated the deadliest terrorist attack in recorded history against targets in New York and in Washington, D.C., bin Laden released a “letter to the American people” in which he warned that if Americans did not agree to his demands, “then their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.”

If there is one lesson from America’s generational struggle against jihadist terrorism, it is that the withdrawal of our forces empowers radicalism. That is what happened after Somalia, after our failure to respond aggressively to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and after our 2011 withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq.

Indeed, less than three years after that most recent exit, we were forced to return to Iraq and to Syria because the rise of ISIS jeopardized the Iraqi government and terrified the world with barbaric acts of murder, slavery, and genocide. Surely Colin Powell recalls that.

It would be an act of self-defeating solipsism to believe that foreign audiences, both good and evil, won’t pay attention to the fact and consequences of America’s departure from Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda will see it as a victory, and the Afghan democrats will see it as a betrayal. And all of them will remember.

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