In 1940, a ragtag flotilla of tug boats, fishing vessels, barges, lifeboats and pleasure craft responded to an urgent call to save a British Army trapped by Nazi forces on the beaches of France. Those 700 “Little Ships,” as they were dubbed, helped the British Navy evacuate more than 380,000 soldiers in 10 days from the port of Dunkirk.
I’m preoccupied with split-screen visions of the “Little Ships” and contemporary images of chaos at Kabul’s airport. As I write, there has been an explosion at the Kabul airport shortly after the U.S Embassy warned Americans lined up at the gates to move away immediately because of a security issue.
I know the bromide about comparing apples and oranges. Indeed, significant differences separate then from now.
Yet precisely because of that, an apples-and-oranges methodology can turn up valuable clues.
The British were united in recognizing that unless they got their soldiers home, they’d be Hitler’s next victims. Americans are bitterly divided on issues that should be a slam-dunk, like wearing mass masks and getting vaccinated during a deadly pandemic. About our only consensus is a wish to be free of the albatross of Afghanistan.
Yet history warns that it’s perilous to begin or end wars before gathering military intelligence. The White House and Pentagon claim we didn’t know that the Taliban were capable of overrunning Afghanistan in 10 days. If true, that marks either a monumental failure of intelligence or dereliction of duty to act accordingly.
It would be comparable to the disaster of Pearl Harbor. Higher-ups couldn’t believe that blips on a radar screen were Japanese dive-bombers even though the U.S. was on high alert to an enemy attack in 1941.
Earlier that year, Joseph Stalin rejected intelligence reports that an attack by Hitler’s forces was imminent. How could that be? The Nazis and Soviets had negotiated a non-aggression pact.
Was the U.S. similarly lulled into dropping its guard? It’s been announced that the head of the CIA is hurrying back to Afghanistan for a second round of talks with the head of the Taliban. The previous talks were kept secret. The Taliban has gone back and forth between refusing and granting an extension of the Aug. 31 due date for America being out of the country.
Connecting those data points awaits future publication of the documents. But this much is already clear: The U.S. exit violates basic principles of military strategy. Disengaging from enemy forces is risky business. You lose sight of what the other guy is up to.
Armies fall back step-by-step to a secure place of disembarking. This time we simultaneously announced we were going and pulled out the American advisers from the local forces that would cover our retreat. Its backbone removed, the Afghan army hadn’t an officer cadre to make battlefield decisions.
Seeing that, the lower ranks concluded it made no sense to risk their lives. Unlike the miracle of Dunkirk, our withdrawal from Afghanistan is a shambles. A dispirited army and a government riddled with corruption was no match for a guerrilla movement fueled by religious fervor.
Meeting little opposition, the Taliban took city after city before the White House reacted to an arrow pointing straight at today’s Dunkirk — the Kabul airport. Belatedly, President Joe Biden sent fresh battalions to guard the only feasible place to evacuate Americans.
At the airport, U.S. soldiers encountered a mass of refugees, the bane of an army that is playing defense. After the British withdrew from Dunkirk in 1940, the French government abandoned Paris, hoping to put some distance between itself and the German army. But the roads running south were jammed with civilians fearful of Nazi rule. France’s leadership got no farther than Vichy, a vacation destination offering mud baths and gambling casinos.
Many Afghan refugees, having worked for the U.S., fear the Taliban’s retribution. Girls and women educated in the 20 years of the Taliban’s absence are loath to live in a theocracy where females are wrapped in burkas and appear in public only when accompanied by a male relative.
That resulted in heart-stopping scenes of desperate Afghans racing American airplanes down the airport’s runways. And no matter how successful Kabul’s evacuation, a dilemma will accompany us.
Winston Churchill felt compelled to damp down the rejoicing uncertainly triggered by Dunkirk. No matter that the army escaped the Germans, it was a retreat and not a victory. Vanquishing the Nazis was still distant. Nearly five years, as events proved.
Patently, we don’t have to worry about joy at the end of the Afghan War. But we proudly advertise America as the land of the free, the home of the brave. So what do we say to the inhabitants of small countries who rebel against future tyrannies, political or religious? Can we convincingly explain that while we precipitously left one battlefield, we remain engaged in mankind’s age-old struggle for freedom?