Biden, Trump battle over who’s to blame for Afghanistan
The finger pointing over the fall of Afghanistan between President Biden and former President Trump is in full swing amid the chaotic scramble to get U.S. personnel and allies out of the country before a full Taliban takeover.
Biden, who rarely mentions his predecessor, made a point of doing so in a weekend statement digging in on the U.S. withdrawal. Biden reminded Americans that the U.S. pullout was originally negotiated by the Trump administration and highlighted the former president’s plans to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump, who just months ago suggested Biden was not getting out of Afghanistan fast enough, has led the charge among Republicans to hammer the Biden administration for its handling of the withdrawal. Trump went as far as calling on the president to resign in a Sunday statement.
The back-and-forth overshadows what experts and former government officials say is a messy situation that both leaders had a hand in creating.
“President Trump did the Biden administration no favors by making it very clear that he was going to remove U.S. troops and beginning a negotiation process which was driven by that imperative. He really let the Taliban set the tone and the direction of the talks,” said a former State Department official who served in the Trump administration and previous administrations.
“In many ways, what Trump starts, Biden is prepared to fulfill,” the official said.
Biden has long been a skeptic of the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and he advocated during his time as vice president for a smaller footprint there. While Biden spent his first weeks in office unraveling his predecessor’s agenda with ruthless efficiency, he announced in April that he would follow through with plans first announced by Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
But as the withdrawal nears its conclusion, the situation has gone awry. The Taliban have swept through major cities and took control faster than Biden administration officials predicted, and the Afghan forces trained and equipped by American troops have failed to provide much resistance.
The U.S. has scrambled to get its own diplomatic personnel out of the capital city of Kabul, as well as briskly process and evacuate thousands of Afghan civilians who aided the Americans over the last 20 years. Many of those allies now fear for their safety under Taliban rule.
The Trump administration brokered a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that laid out a plan for the U.S. to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021 if the group upheld certain commitments, such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.
Roughly 2,500 troops remained in Afghanistan when Biden took office. The president in April said he would follow through on the planned withdrawal, but he moved the end date back to Sept. 11, and later shifted it to Aug. 31, citing logistical considerations.
“I wish Joe Biden wouldn’t use September 11 as the date to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, for two reasons,” Trump said in a statement at the time. “First, we can and should get out earlier. Nineteen years is enough, in fact, far too much and way too long.”
But Trump, who spent years advocating for an end to “endless wars,” has used the burgeoning crisis under Biden’s watch to pummel his successor. Trump has released more than a dozen statements in recent days on the subject of Afghanistan and attempted to fundraise off the issue, insisting the U.S. withdrawal would have been more orderly if he were still in office.
“Afghanistan is the most embarrassing military outcome in the history of the United States. It didn’t have to be that way!” Trump said in a Monday statement.
“Can anyone even imagine taking out our Military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” Trump added in a separate statement. “In addition, these people left topflight and highly sophisticated equipment. Who can believe such incompetence? Under my Administration, all civilians and equipment would have been removed.”
A trio of former Trump administration officials argued in a statement Monday that the former president would not have followed through on the withdrawal without successful final talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.
“The difference between then and now is leadership,” former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, former Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and former national security adviser to the vice president Keith Kellogg said in a statement, declaring “the Biden Administration alone owns this failure.”
Biden officials have pointed to public polling showing support for the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to justify the decision to pull out, and they have argued the rapid collapse of the Afghan government illustrates the futility of remaining there.
But as criticism ratchets up, the White House has harkened back to Trump-era decisions that they believe set the stage for this month’s breakdown. Setting a deadline of May 1 allowed the Taliban to wait out the U.S., they argued, and Trump’s Camp David invite to the Taliban granted the group legitimacy.
With Republicans and national security hawks second guessing the entire operation, Biden dug in on his decision on Saturday while pointing the finger in part at Trump.
“When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor—which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019—that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on US forces,” Biden said in a statement. “Shortly before he left office, he also drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.
“I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth,” Biden said in the statement.
But experts expressed skepticism over the idea that Biden was really boxed in by Trump. They argued he could have pushed the withdrawal date back to ensure the Taliban upheld its commitments or maintained a smaller force in the region to oversee the safe withdrawal of personnel.
As of Monday afternoon, the U.S. was sending 7,000 troops to Afghanistan to aid in the evacuation effort.
“He has undone plenty of Trump administration policies, and he definitely could’ve undone this one as well if he had chosen to,” said Emily Harding, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Biden signaled early on he wanted to get us out of Afghanistan.”
As each side seeks to stave off political backlash for its role in setting the U.S. withdrawal in motion, current and former government officials believe both Trump and Biden bear some responsibility for the mess unfolding in Kabul and elsewhere.
“Both presidents Biden and Trump had the right goal in mind — ending America’s longstanding presence in Afghanistan. But both also failed to pursue that goal in the right way,” tweeted Mark Esper, Trump’s former Defense secretary who was fired last year after advocating against drawing down forces in Afghanistan.
“The only way this conflict could have ended better was through a political agreement among Afghans that was conditions based, patient, and backed up by U.S. and allied militaries,” Esper added. “We had this, but both presidents abandoned the process and stuck to an arbitrary timeline.”
While most GOP lawmakers have rushed to criticize Biden for overseeing a disorderly evacuation process, some have been adamant the last week’s events were more than a year in the making.
“Here’s the ugly truth: Neither party is serious about foreign policy,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. “For a decade now, demagogues have lied to the American people about our mission in Afghanistan. President Trump pioneered the strategy of retreat President Biden is pursuing, to disastrous effect.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who served in the U.S. Air Force, called it a “dark day” that could foreshadow the emergence of terrorist groups as the Taliban strengthens its hold on Afghanistan.
“I’ve said countless times that withdrawing our troops emboldens our enemies and puts our allies in grave danger. And yet, both President Trump and President Biden made their announcements anyway — broadcasting to our enemies that we were leaving and telling our allies around the world that we had given up,” Kinzinger said in a statement. “The reality we face now is sad, and the aftermath will be dangerous and devastating.”