Rooting out global terrorism is not synonymous with imperialist hubris.

And those who strive for power through suicide bombings thrive in violent, nondemocratic societies, the kinds of places where leaders talk to their people with an AK-47 at their side.

We hope that pair of salient truths are being remembered at the White House as America mourns the loss Thursday of at least 13 American service members, killed along with some 200 Afghan men, women and children by a brutal terrorist attack outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Especially as we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

On an August day that proved to be the darkest of Joe Biden’s young presidency, the terrorist group known as Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, or IS-K, claimed credit for the pair of explosions that maimed or killed not just members of the U.S. armed forces working for the safety of others, but Afghans merely trying to secure their own security and freedom from oppression.

Although the day represented one of the worst days for U.S. casualties in the entire 20-year operation in Afghanistan, it does not appear to have been carried out by the Taliban, the long-standing adversary in that profoundly flawed campaign. It was the work of a third party, a yet-more-extreme group with a vested interest in undermining the Taliban’s apparent victory, particularly if the Taliban plans to, as it has claimed, mend its ways.

ISIS-K is known for disregarding international borders on the premise that the Islamic Caliphate cannot be confined by such. Its stated goals include the defeat of Israel and the United States. And it is known for its adaptability to local conditions.

When Biden announced the symbolic date of Sept. 11 as the end of the U.S. military’s engagement in Afghanistan, he was intending to send a signal of some kind of completion to what once was known as a war on terror or, at the very least, an acknowledgment that a definitive decision had been made about a war that no longer matched U.S. interests. A decision made from a position of strength.

The brutality of that region of the world has undermined that narrative.

Instead of signaling that the events of 9/11 were in the rearview mirror, the perpetrators hunted down, Americans have seen the specter of terrorism hurtling back into sight. There might not be direct evidence of ISIS planning attacks on U.S. soil but only a fool would see such a move as impossible. The group has often encouraged so-called lone wolves.

Thanks to the poorly planned withdrawal and evacuation efforts, ISIS-K did not need to come stateside to find U.S. targets, given that members of the armed forces were working their fingers to the bone trying to get America’s Afghan allies to safety and a better life, where they would not have to fear government oppression and retribution.

Biden hardly is the only president to blame for this mess. There is no question that President Donald Trump’s intemperate deal with the Taliban reduced the options open to his successor, not least because it signaled to the Taliban that all it had to do was sit and wait. By telegraphing a lack of U.S. will to continue to work with allies to protect freedoms in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and its security forces were further weakened. Hence the rapid collapse.

So while it’s surely tempting for Republicans to use this debacle for political gain and to try to render the Biden presidency a single-term affair, the reality is that the mistakes here have been bipartisan. And few Republicans have openly repudiated the Trump deal.

For centuries, Afghanistan has been a quagmire for nations such as Britain, Russia and the United States. Biden’s belief that it had to end, that it was not worth more American lives over many more years, is entirely defensible.

But now he has to face, and own, the inconvenient truth that terrorists love to fill a power vacuum. They cannot be allowed to prevail. And the fight against them will need to be waged not just by the U.S., but by its long-standing allies. Biden’s rhetoric needs to become more inclusive of those allies.

Time will tell there and we think any such possibility will require the judicious application of America’s leverage.

But an inconvenient truth blew up Thursday in America’s face. This was the message: There are those to the right of the Taliban who specialize in terrorism.

In Afghanistan and beyond, the war on terror is far from over. All nations who believe in freedom, safety and democracy will have to reengage. There can be no withdrawal from that.

Chicago Tribune

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