Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor of Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo
In the traditional Japanese art of war, there is a word called “Shingari” which approximately means “rearguard.” Shingari refers to the last unit of an army that retreats. The last unit performs the most difficult and dangerous mission. It must safeguard the evacuation of the troops ahead and ensure the safety of them, while being exposed to the enemy’s pursuit from behind and vulnerable to the ambush attacks.
The rearguard unit does not have the opportunity to defeat the enemy, gain territory, or make spectacular military achievements. The attrition rate is extremely high among the rearguard unit.
Even if they survive and return home, completing their mission, they are rarely honored, since their war is the lost war.
Since ancient times, the most seasoned and experienced Samurai generals were appointed as the commander of the Shingari rearguard unit. They took the order as the highest honor and accepted their fate.
For high-ranking Samurai generals, serving as commander of the Shingari unit in the defeated war was part of the noblesse oblige, fulfilling the duty to their master warlord even when it meant their probable deaths.
Now, President Biden has withdrawn the last of unit of the American troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. military mission of retreat has been completed without suffering major damages. Aside from the death of the many Afghan civilians and more than a dozen of U.S. army personnel guarding them in the Kabul Airport, the U.S. military suffered little damage during the withdrawal operation. As such, the U.S. retreat operation itself can be said an “extraordinary success.”
The evaluation of s the 20-year U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, however, must be done on the entire mission on the counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and state-building, which were noble causes raised and pursued by the successive presidents and commanders.
President Biden retracted and disowned these noble causes once loudly advocated. He eloquently defended his decision to break off with the U.S. past decisions and exonerated himself from the failed decisions and implementations of previous administrations.
Even though he can successfully dissociate himself from the failures of the previous U.S. presidents, he cannot dissociate the U.S. from its recent past in the Middle East. History cannot be undone nor just deleted.
What have been done in Afghanistan in the past two decades and what have been left? We must know it and own it. We are all in the rearguard in charge of safeguarding the cause which is retreating.