Noting the dwindling availability of ICU beds in Maine this summer as the COVID delta variant surges, I wondered if I alone worried about COVID at the Kabul airport. Tightly packed evacuees fleeing the Taliban were risking their lives by COVID, too. Then I read that COVID was an “afterthought” – a worry that seems like a “luxury” in hindsight.

If President Biden had concerns about COVID in the evacuation, that wasn’t obvious. Yet I wondered whether the rising COVID cases heightened American self-interest beyond the plague itself – including what could have seemed beforehand like an easy political win for Biden in Afghanistan, as delta brought down Biden’s marks on his handling of the pandemic. Ancient history informed my thoughts.

According to Wellesley College Professor Emerita of Classical Studies Mary Lefkowitz, a 2006 National Humanities Medal awardee, fifth-century B.C. Athenian historian Thucydides linked the effects of plague with heightened self-interest, including ill-advised military action: “Thucydides gave a prominent account of the plague because he appreciated how its psychological and moral effects would persist beyond the death and suffering the Athenians endured,” said Lefkowitz. “He observed that when the Athenian assembly voted to invade Sicily, ‘the city had just recovered from the disease and the first part of the [Peloponnesian] war [;] many young men had come of age.’ Thus, the Athenian assembly was more determined than ever to advance its own self-interests. Yet the Sicilian expedition ended in total and foreseeable defeat.” As Thucydides put it, “They were destroyed, as the saying is, ‘with a total destruction’ of both their fleet and their army.”

“Ancient Greek historian Herodotus also used the term ‘with a total destruction’ in describing the fall of Troy,” added Lefkowitz. “The Iliad opens with description of a devastating plague and concludes with substantial loss of life, with more to come.”

To be sure, the Athenian defeat in Sicily, fall of Troy and fall of Kabul have many differences. Still, we may wonder whether the demoralizing effects of plague factored into those military decisions. Lefkowitz said that Athenians made reckless judgments, in trying to reassert their self-interest after their plague-driven demoralization. The Athenians believed the indigenous Elymians’ promise of riches if the Athenians invaded Sicily. Biden seemingly believed former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s assurance that “Afghan forces would fight the insurgents,” upon American military withdrawal. Famous last words.

Whether Biden pulls a political rabbit out of a war-torn hat remains to be seen – he’s betting that by 2022 voters will have forgotten the anything-but-“orderly-and-safe” Afghanistan evacuation: “The Biden team’s cold political calculation is that the outrage expressed by the Washington political class and the ghastly images shown by the national news media will have little lasting effect on Americans who will soon forget the messy departure but remember that the president got the United States out of a failed war.”


Even if Biden’s much-criticized Afghanistan evacuation is ancient history by November 2022, he’ll be called to account by Republicans. There’s irony in the fact that some Republicans who initially celebrated Trump’s deal with the Taliban voted against expediting the special immigrant visas for U.S.- allied Afghan civilians, and blamed Biden for following through on the deal. I anticipate the added irony of anti-vaccine-mandate Republicans expressing outrage over allowing (what they’ll presume are) unvaccinated Afghan refugees into the United States.

Meanwhile, Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy advised Democrats to stop accepting Republican arguments that the Biden administration bears sole responsibility for the evacuation debacle: “You cannot tell the story of what happened around the airport in Kabul without reviewing the decisions made over the last 20 years.” The problem is, Murphy spoke those words before American troops were killed by ISIS-K suicide-bomb attacks, making it harder, if not impossible, to withhold judgment. I confess to being hopelessly addicted to reading opinions about Afghanistan proffered by journalists I respect.

As more facts surface, opinions will evolve or harden. In either case, whether our 21st century plague figured into any of Biden’s tactical decisions is, like all the factors involved, a matter for unbiased investigation – not snarky hindsight punditry. As Thucydides and Herodotus appreciated, history will be the judge of America’s two-decades in and two-week evacuation out of Afghanistan.

— Special to the Telegram

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