A Dishonorable Exit

Honor demanded America rescue Afghans who served alongside us and assist those who took chances on their country because we asked.

A photograph of crowds outside a gate to enter the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla / U.S. Marine Corps / AP

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

“Honour is often influenced by that element of pride which plays so large a part in its inspiration,” Winston Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm. “An exaggerated code of honour leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds could not be defended, however fine it might look. Here, however, the moment came when Honour pointed the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates.”

Churchill was reflecting on the Munich agreement of 1938, a decade after the event. His famous statement to the British government at the time—“You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war”—has been invoked of late in the debate about America’s disengagement from Afghanistan. That old-fashioned word, honor, has much to say about our manner of leaving Afghanistan.

There are two separable issues here: the decision to liquidate America’s Afghan commitment, about which reasonable and prudent people could, did, and do disagree; and the manner in which it was conceived, executed, presented, and defended. And in that latter respect, the American exit was profoundly dishonorable.

Honor is not gratitude. It is, as Churchill noted, animated in large part by pride and not simply by a desire to repay favors or clear a debt. It is why so many veterans and serving officers went to extraordinary lengths to extract the Afghans who had fought alongside them. For the military, “No one left behind” is an unconditional code. It is why, for example, the forces retreating from North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in 1950 lashed the frozen remains of their comrades to their vehicles. They were determined to bring everyone back.

In the current case, honor demanded that we do everything possible to rescue Afghans who served alongside us, not just those who applied for Special Immigrant Visas, which are numerically limited and hedged with qualifications (e.g., being paid by the U.S. government rather than by contractors). By any measure, the United States failed to do all it could. Consider the Afghan contractor who went to rescue then–Senator Joseph Biden in a snowbound helicopter in 2008, and whose life is now in danger.

Honor also demanded that we assist those who took chances on their country—the 200 female Afghan judges, for example—because we encouraged them to step up in dangerous circumstances. Conferring a benefit sometimes incurs moral obligations: It is one thing, after all, to launch extreme measures to save someone on death’s door, another to withdraw such support once it has been extended. Senators of both parties (including the current president) celebrated the opening of Afghan society; it is dishonorable to turn our backs on those we encouraged.

Honor is seen not through a window, but in a mirror. It is the hard question about whether we have lived up to our own moral code, and the code we proclaim for others. In one definition, it is what shapes what we do when no one is looking and no one will know. It is the acceptance of responsibility, not in a meaningless formulation like “The buck stops here,” but in the acceptance of consequences and in an honest reckoning when we fall terribly short.

After the bombing of the Beirut barracks in 1983 in which 241 Marines died, no civilian and no officer took responsibility for a series of calamitous mistakes that led up to the disaster. In an act of moral exasperation, Lieutenant General Al Gray, then commander of Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, offered his resignation. He was not in the chain of command, but he was appalled that no one had been willing to accept some kind of accountability for a monumental screwup. His offer was declined, and he eventually became the 29th commandant of the Marine Corps, revered not only because of his professional expertise but because of the moral core that informed his leadership.

Honor requires the acceptance of risk. It is not about cost-benefit analysis or trade-offs, which is why the military is routinely willing to put the lives of many in hazard to rescue a few. But it also ennobles military service. That is why so many military people and veterans bristle at pity, as though their sacrifices and those of their families made them into victims and not into people who chose to  conduct their lives in accordance with enduring values. It is why they want and deserve respect rather than sympathy.

At some point, Congress will probe the striking incompetence of the final six months of America’s Afghan War, which was only partly redeemed by the determination and improvisation of American troops and civilians on the ground in its last two weeks. Why was the withdrawal date set for the middle of the fighting season? What sort of military advice did the president get and, in particular, why did we cap the number of troops who could be deployed for the mission? Why was there no mobilization of civilian resources over the spring and summer—at State and elsewhere—to notify and prepare to process the Afghans we were exposing to the gravest danger? To what extent did we consult with allies who had troops on the ground, and to what extent did we simply drag them along with us? What did the intelligence really say? Why was the administration so blithely confident that all would go well, confident enough that the president could assure Americans that there would be no Saigon-in-1975 moment? Why did some senior members of the administration think they could head off on their holidays on the very verge of this hazardous withdrawal?

Such questions are appropriate topics for a legislative investigation. But at the same time and in parallel, there should be a moral audit of an administration that repeatedly disparaged Afghans who had suffered far more than had Americans, and who will now pay a much higher price. There should be some soul-searching about the untruths and half truths, like the inflated claim that there were 300,000 Afghan security forces. There should be an acceptance of the responsibility that so many, including the president, share for encouraging Afghans to think that we would stand with them.

Dishonor is its own disgrace, but it has practical effects as well. The consequences of dishonorable behavior can be seen in the commentary among America’s allies, and even more so in unofficial conversations with them. They often remark that if Afghanistan is an indication, the Biden administration’s view of the world—cold, transactional, self-centered if not indeed selfish—is simply that of its predecessor, presented with a tight smile rather than a petulant pout, but with equal amounts of smug belligerence. It’s all about deals, and that means that when the time comes, other allies’ fates too are negotiable.

Churchill was keenly aware of the limits of honor as a guide to action. But as he observed in his remarkably sympathetic eulogy of Neville Chamberlain, the man he had so bitterly opposed over the Munich agreement, we do not know the consequences of the actions of statesmen: “It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.” Which is why, he concluded, honor and prudence must walk hand in hand. If only that had been the case during the dishonorable summer of 2021.