Recent Op-Eds

The Eyes of the World are Watching

By Sen. John Thune

August 26, 2021

The eyes of the world were on the United States and our leaders nearly 20 years ago to the day as we experienced one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history. Nearly 3,000 innocent lives were lost at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon in our nation’s capital, and in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and our country was forever changed. 

At the time, a terrorist attack of this magnitude on American soil was unthinkable. It was a chaotic, uncertain time, but one thing was clear: America would not waiver in the pursuit of justice, and it would never hesitate to defend our nation, our people, and our ideals – at home or abroad.

True to a relentless American spirit, men and women from all walks of life answered the call to duty and signed up to serve in our armed forces. This generation of service members, including many from Ellsworth Air Force Base and the South Dakota National Guard, deployed around the globe to fight terror and defend freedom. Some of those same men and women are still serving today.

In the decades since 9/11, members of our all-volunteer military have taken action to bring the fight to terrorists around the globe and protect our nation. These men and women have dismantled terrorist safe havens, disrupted terror groups, thwarted attacks, hunted down and delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, and put their own lives at risk to make our world a safer place. 

Twenty years later, the eyes of the world are again closely watching the United States and our leaders during the drawdown of our presence in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, under this administration’s watch, the withdrawal of U.S. forces has rapidly devolved from bad to worse to what can now only be described as an all-out crisis.   

Everything we’ve witnessed over the last few weeks has been a stunning end to the United States’ effort in Afghanistan. For many, the unraveling of the country and the ensuing humanitarian crisis is personal, and I understand.   

Prior to the Biden administration’s reduction of American troops in Afghanistan, reasonable people could disagree on the merits of keeping a sustained military presence in the country. Military experts and members of Congress, including myself, repeatedly warned the president about the dangers of withdrawing troops based on an arbitrary timeline rather than the security situation on the ground. President Biden did not heed this advice. 

The Afghanistan crisis is a direct result of the shortsighted actions of this administration. The intelligence did not fail. The president did. Instead of taking decisive action to improve the situation on the ground, President Biden doubled down on his strategy by maintaining an arbitrary deadline for concluding our efforts to evacuate Americans and our allies. President Biden has effectively ceded all leverage to the Taliban. While a heroic effort is underway by our military, the administration’s actions continue to risk leaving an unknown number of American citizens and others in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban.

Unfortunately, this crisis will likely have long-lasting consequences. The rushed exit left a significant amount of U.S. military equipment behind, including modern arms that are now in the hands of the Taliban. ISIS-K, a resurgent branch of the Islamic State, has tragically – and, given the ongoing chaos, not surprisingly – attacked the evacuation effort, killing several U.S. service members and civilians. There’s also a growing risk of a Taliban-led Afghanistan again serving as a safe haven for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

The world is watching as harrowing and unnecessary scenes continue to unfold across Afghanistan. People are also watching inspiring moments of humanity – our troops maintaining order in challenging conditions, comforting scared kids and parents, soothing babies, and handing out supplies. 

 To those American heroes, past and present, let me be crystal clear: The crisis we see today in no way diminishes the selfless service and significant sacrifice you and your families have made over the last 20 years. We are forever grateful for everything you’ve done for our country and for the years spent away from your families in far-flung corners of the world. There is no question that you made a difference.

It’s because of our troops’ service, sacrifice, and commitment that I’m so bitterly disappointed in the president and his administration for the dangerous decisions they’ve made over the past few weeks. I’m angry. I know many fellow South Dakotans are, too. But what was true 20 years ago is still true today: We should be undaunted in the pursuit of justice and in protecting our people. We can leave no American or ally behind in the hands of the Taliban.