As we come perilously close to the Aug. 31st deadline for leaving Afghanistan, questions still loom and they loom larger with each passing day.

And so I went to Rep. Jason Crow — a decorated combat veteran who served a total of three tours of duty, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, who sits on both the House Intelligence Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, who has been outspoken, as a Democrat, in his disagreement with many of the decisions made by President Joe Biden and his administration on the withdrawal — for help with some of the answers.

And here are two that should give you pause. They did me.

Mike Littwin

One, he said, the mission — to evacuate all American citizens who want to be evacuated, to evacuate our allies and those he calls our Afghan partners — can’t possibly be completed by Aug. 31, even with the very successful ramping up of operations. Everyone basically agrees with that. But it could be done, he insisted, in a matter of a few weeks. And that it’s our duty, our very mission, to make sure we finish the evacuations before leaving, as many others from both parties are saying. He says this after the bomb blast, killing 13 U.S. service members, most in their early 20s, and countless Afghans trying to leave the country.

If that is right — that it’s a matter of a few weeks and not months and certainly not years, that it’s not another fork in the road to nowhere — a failure to extend the deadline seems entirely wrong-headed. Don’t call it a defeat. We lost this war many years ago, somewhere around the time that Americans lost interest in the whole proposition. Call it an abandonment. Don’t we owe it to those who helped us in Afghanistan, and whose lives are now at risk from the Taliban for that cooperation, to rescue them? Wouldn’t it be a stain on Biden, and on America, if we don’t?

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If Crow is wrong, of course, that’s another story. They call them forever wars for a reason. And if the Taliban, which has said there should be no extension of the deadline, turns against American troops for those final few weeks, it’s likely that there will be many more casualties. That’s certainly what keeps Biden up at night.

But even more compelling, at least to me, was this argument: If protecting our citizens and allies is the core mission of the military, what’s the point of having the greatest military in the world — one, he could have added, for which we pay many hundreds of billions of dollars annually — if we don’t now complete that mission?

“It’s risky, it’s dangerous, there are potential costs,” Crow conceded on Thursday, the day of the ISIS-K airport bombing. “But we have done this for decades, for generations. We send our military into harm’s way to protect Americans and America’s partners. This mission right now is no different. That’s why we have this capability.”

Just so you understand, Crow is not some Afghanistan hawk. He left the region 15 years ago and never could have imagined we’d still be there. He points out that many now serving in Afghanistan weren’t even alive on 9/11 and that, incredibly, we now have generations of Americans having fought in this forever war. It’s hard to argue with Biden’s obvious point that America would never have gone to Afghanistan if Osama bin Laden had chosen another country to set up his terrorist camp.

Crow certainly agrees with Biden that we should leave and that we should have left long ago. It’s the how that gets to him, and obviously to a lot of other Americans. He believes we should have begun getting vulnerable Afghans out of the country months ago. And he has been making that case to anyone who would listen — in other words, with many appearances on cable TV news — for those many months.

But it’s the how, in these hyperpartisan times, that divides America in the worst possible way and makes this argument — as it does seemingly every argument — about politics and little more. The arguments about the withdrawal — the benighted Marjorie Taylor Greene has called for the impeachment of Biden and just about everyone else in his administration — might as well be about wearing masks or mandating vaccines or, thank you Tina Peters, spreading the Big Lie of a rigged election. From the nativist world of Trumpism and Tucker Carlson, we’re hearing that we don’t want these Afghan refugees in America. One Newsmax host suggested that bringing in Afghan refugees would make our wives and daughters unsafe. Seriously. 

Biden’s Republican critics seem to forget that it was Donald Trump who negotiated and signed the agreement with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan. I don’t buy Biden’s argument that he had to abide by anything Trump agreed to, but to hear those who never criticized Trump’s position now criticizing Biden’s is a little rich, particularly the part about the Taliban providing security, however flawed it might be. Biden doesn’t trust the Taliban. But if we weren’t working with the Taliban — in whose self-interest it is, as Biden points out, for us to leave — the evacuation would be many times more difficult and dangerous.

“The events of the last few weeks,” Crow said of the horrifying scenes at the airport, “clearly demonstrate there is no way to militarily end this war. Another year, another five years, another 10 years wouldn’t have changed that.”

And in criticizing those who would politicize the tragedy — Lauren Boebert, predictably, is exploiting the deaths of Americans to fundraise —  Crow notes, “There’s an awful lot of people who haven’t been willing to have the debate and engage in the discussions over the last two decades about this war. I ask where they’ve been over the last 20 years while our men and women are in combat missions nonstop, night and day.”

Biden, a longtime critic of the former war, thought we had time to finish the evacuation before the Taliban took over. He accelerated the time to get out because of the possible risks. He was wrong about the timing. Those who have seen the intelligence have said Biden was warned of the possibility of a rapid collapse, even as he promised the evacuation wouldn’t resemble the fall of Saigon. For a time Friday, planes weren’t leaving the airport.

In his news conference Thursday after the bomb blast, Biden said that if we can’t evacuate all willing Americans by the end of the month, we will continue to work to get them out of the country. He didn’t say how we’d do that, with no troops on the ground and with the Taliban in control. That seems like a pipe dream, something far more difficult to accomplish than Biden’s promise to hunt down and punish the ISIS-K group apparently responsible for the attack on the airport. The Pentagon announced the killing of two ISIS militants and the wounding of another in a drone attack on Friday night.

None of this is easy. How could it be? If we stay longer, even a little longer, it’s likely — as the Pentagon is saying — there will be more terrorist attacks. How much risk is too much risk? That’s the question now. It’s one that must be made quickly. But, remember, it took us 20 years to finally determine that a forever war was a war fought for far too long.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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