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What do NC Democrats running for Senate think about Afghanistan? We asked them.

Afghan people climb atop a plane at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, when thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee Taliban. The withdrawal is set to be a pivotal issue in the North Carolina campaigns for U.S. Senate.

Afghan people climb atop a plane at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, when thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee Taliban. The withdrawal is set to be a pivotal issue in the North Carolina campaigns for U.S. Senate.

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Among three of North Carolina’s Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, a significant gap has emerged around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — not around whether the military should have withdrawn, but how.

Responding to questions from the Observer, the candidates talked about what went right, what went wrong, and how much blame the Biden administration deserves for the turmoil that has swallowed Afghanistan in recent weeks.

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The issue is likely to be a sticking point for Democrats during the general election in November 2022. Already, the three most well-funded Republicans in the race have attempted to pin blame about difficulties of the withdrawal on President Joe Biden. During the general election, they will likely try to shift political blame to the victor of the North Carolina’s Democratic primary in March.

That’s not to say that the Republicans will get off easy, either. The Trump administration signed a deal in February 2020 with the Taliban that excluded the U.S.-backed Afghan government. That deal promised a full retreat of U.S. troops in 14 months, along with the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison.

In turn, the Taliban said it would begin peace negotiations with the Afghan government; would not allow anti-American terrorists to use Afghanistan as a safe haven; and agreed to release 1,000 prisoners of its own. Instead, the insurgent group toppled the government in a blitz offensive. Experts worry the Taliban will provide sanctuary for terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda.

Still, in the minds of many American voters, much of the blame for the turmoil of the American withdrawal will fall on Biden — and thus, on Democrats, said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina political operative and former aide to the late Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

With the coming retirement of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the candidates will not face an incumbent. The North Carolina race will be pivotal as both parties vie for control of the upper house of Congress.

That blame could become more effective if America’s standing as a global power falters as a result of the withdrawal, Wrenn said, particularly if countries like Iran and China seize the opportunity to gain influence of their own.

”All that stuff makes it a very explosive issue,” he said, adding that the fall of Vietnam was a major factor in both the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections.

It didn’t take long for political observers, pundits and historians to draw parallels between the August withdrawal in Afghanistan and Vietnam. In 1975, the U.S. rushed to evacuate diplomats, intelligence workers and its few remaining troops as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Many South Vietnamese pleaded to be taken out of the country on airplanes and helicopters — in Kabul, Afghans rushed to the airport in a last-ditch effort to flee.

Many voters “had one perception before the withdrawal (of Afghanistan), and what they saw at the withdrawal changed their perception about what was right and what was wrong,” Wrenn said. “That’s rare in politics, but it does happen, and when it happens it’s like an earthquake.”

What the candidates were asked

The Observer posed four questions about the end of America’s longest war to three of the leading Democratic candidates: N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson; former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley; and former N.C. Sen. Erica Smith.

The questions were:

Should the U.S. have withdrawn at all?

Was the evacuation a success, a failure, or somewhere in between, and what could have been improved?

How much blame should the Biden administration shoulder for leaving behind hundreds of Afghan interpreters and other workers who aided the U.S. military in our mission?

And, going forward, what responsibility does the U.S. have for the fate of the Afghan people, and what kind of relationship should the U.S. have with the Taliban as they establish their government?

Both Jackson and Smith gave answers that satisfied each question. Beasley gave a shorter, more general response. Some of their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Jackson

United States withdrawal:

“Yes. We proceeded with our exit because we had already given Afghanistan everything we could. We poured $90 billion just into the Afghan military and stayed for an entire generation — at a loss of nearly 2,500 American servicemembers.

“After watching the Afghan army evaporate in a matter of weeks, it’s clear that we never came close to bringing Afghanistan to the point of long-term stability and self-governance.”

How evacuation unfolded:

“Here are three major mistakes with respect to the evacuation mission:

“The first was the previous administration’s decision to sharply reduce the processing of Special Immigrant Visas. That program that was created specifically for Afghans and Iraqis who helped us and it’s supposed to be an expedited process to get them safely out of the country. It involves an administrative review that is arduous and bureaucratic even when it’s functioning — but Trump blocked almost all requests.

“When Biden took over, the wait-list had 17,000 Afghans on it. That wasn’t an oversight, that was Trump lumping these people in with his broader anti-immigration message and not caring about the consequences.

“That said, fixing the SIV process should have been a much higher priority for the current administration. That was our second mistake. Yes, the evaporation of the Afghan army was a shock. But we plan for unlikely contingencies all the time. That should have been one. There was no reason not to expedite the process by bringing the applicants to a U.S. territory, like Guam, and allowing the rest of the application process to occur there.

“Third, we should not have given away the Bagram Airfield before the evacuation mission was complete. If we were going to need to conduct a rapid, large-scale evacuation, we were going to need Bagram, which was our largest base and the most fortified airfield. We left Bagram in early July, and then we had to rely on the airport in Kabul to conduct evacuation operations. Kabul is much harder to defend and more limited in terms of air traffic given that it only has one runway while the airfield at Bagram has two.”

Blame on Biden administration:

“See above.”

Fate of the Afghan people:

“This is a deeply complex situation and the truth is, we don’t know yet what the future of Afghanistan or our involvement in the country will look like. We don’t yet know how to effectively administer aid because we don’t know if it’s going to reach the people who need it.

“But we have a humanitarian interest in helping the people who will face immense suffering in our absence, particularly the children who may otherwise starve. And we have a strategic interest in making sure Afghanistan doesn’t become a haven for those who want to export terrorism. We’ll likely be involved with this country for the foreseeable future, but it will no longer entail a permanent military presence, and that’s a good thing.”

Erica Smith

United States withdrawal:

“We should have withdrawn a long time ago.This war was lost over a decade ago and the people who are now saying that more time would’ve made the difference are the same people who are to blame for the war going on this long in the first place.

“This was seemingly inevitable — all President Biden did was make sure that it wouldn’t be prolonged at the expense of domestic investment and the lives of our troops.”

How evacuation unfolded:

“For the first time in twenty years, we are not at war in Afghanistan. There’s no good time to lose a war, and this war was lost fifteen years ago when then-President Bush decided to prioritize ‘nation building’ abroad over investments here at home.

“President Biden did what three presidents before him couldn’t do, and that was to bring an end to the forever war. He did that under circumstances that were made all the more difficult by the bad deal that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban.

“I’m deeply grateful to President Biden for standing up to the military-industrial complex, stopping the dumping of taxpayer money into a war we’d already lost, and for bringing our troops home.”

Blame on Biden administration:

“Under incredibly challenging circumstances, the Biden Administration evacuated 100,000 Afghans and over 90% of the U.S. citizens who wanted to leave. While a lot of politicians were scoring cheap political points attacking the execution of the evacuation before it even took place, the Air Force and our Marines were doing remarkable work and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Fate of the Afghan people:

“If you break something, you have a responsibility to fix it.

“I want to see a foreign policy where we’re more focused on building schools than dropping bombs. A foreign policy that promotes human rights and centers diplomacy, not war. I hope that a lesson has been learned and that the era of endless wars will come to a permanent end. Not one more dollar, not one more soldier, not one more war.”

Cheri Beasley

“Like most North Carolinians, I agree it was time for the 20-year war in Afghanistan to end. We have a responsibility to continue evacuating the Americans and Afghan allies who want to leave, and to ensure that incoming refugees have the resources they need. I’m grateful for the sacrifice of our brave servicemembers and their families from North Carolina and across the nation who selflessly served our country, and we must meet our obligations to them.

“The safety of our nation must be our top priority. It is appropriate to review this situation to prevent these circumstances in the future and to ensure our intelligence and national security organizations are able to keep us safe from security threats to the U.S.”

This story was originally published September 23, 2021 10:18 AM.

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