Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal
Progressives are breathing a sigh of relief over the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, praising President Biden’s commitment to halting the forever war even as the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul comes under heavy criticism.
After the White House declared the war over on Monday and Biden defended his decisions Tuesday, liberal lawmakers, strategists and movement-aligned activists offered words of support for what they considered to be a tough but moral decision.
The “messaging from progressive thought leaders and organizations has been consistently critical of the ‘War on Terror’ and the war in Afghanistan more specifically,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who helped organize a coalition of groups around anti-war efforts.
With regard to America’s involvement in longstanding battles, Weinstein sees two only options.
“You can either continue them to try to avoid the aftermath, and in doing so you incrementally make things worse and worse, or you can end them and you will have to deal with the aftermath, but you break the cycle,” he said. “What President Biden did was he made the decision to break the cycle.”
“I think we all expected the can to be kicked down the road. If you look at history, that was the bet to make,” Weinstein added. “The reason for that is precisely what we’re seeing right now: There was going to be a political backlash.”
While anti-Afghan invasion sentiment was scarce in Washington in 2001 when then-President George W. Bush unseated the Taliban, progressives became more fervent throughout the Bush years and subsequent administrations in their calls for a withdrawal, urging both former Presidents Obama and Trump to put a stop to what many perceived to be a misguided mission by the United States that had run its course.
On Tuesday, in an impassioned defense of his decision, Biden made clear he was sympathetic to that view.
“Leaving August the 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives,” the president said from the State Dining Room late in the afternoon. “I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not extending a forever exit.”
The speech was intended to give Americans a sober look at Biden’s international agenda, one that puts a premium on stopping overseas combat even when politically inconvenient.
“Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires for a reason,” said Cullen Tiernan, a Marine Corps veteran and former campaign aide to former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who ran on a presidential platform of ending foreign wars.
“We have been there for 20 years, investing our lives, treasure and future into a corrupt Afghan government that clearly did not have the confidence or support of the Afghan people,” Tiernan added.
After operations erupted into a disorderly scene in Kabul over the past two weeks, many expressed renewed frustration that the United States was involved in Afghanistan to begin with. That sentiment was bolstered by images and news reports of evacuation delays and the tragic killing of 13 American troops by ISIS militants.
Among progressives, many view the entire war as a wasteful act.
“Ending wars is good actually,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a crusader against a hawkish approach to military intervention.
“We never should have begun America’s longest war in the first place — a war of endless suffering and needless death,” added Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). “A top priority right now must be raising the refugee cap and assisting as many Afghans as possible with resettlement. My office stands ready to help.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hosted a town hall on Friday after the fatal bombing at the Kabul airport. Earlier in the week, she and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif) — the only member of Congress to vote against the Bush-era war act — sent a joint letter to Biden asking him to allow more individuals into the country through the Refugee Admissions Program.
While the decision to withdraw early into Biden’s administration was applauded by the left, there is also a sizable contingent speaking out about the way the exit was handled.
Trump and other Republicans strongly condemned the president’s end-game strategy and sought to portray him as incapable of skillfully handling a tough military decision other presidents didn’t want to touch. Multiple GOP senators and the Republican National Committee called for his resignation. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Biden was displaying “cowardice and incompetence.”
And Biden’s approval rating took a hit. In a Morning Consult survey released on Monday, 49 percent of voters polled said they disapprove of the president’s job performance.
Still, some progressives discount critiques of ill preparation as disingenuous, claiming things were never going to be easy towards the very end. Biden appeared to agree with that assessment in his remarks.
“I take responsibility for the decision,” he reiterated, a line he’s used in previous national addresses. “Now some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner? I respectfully disagree.”
There’s also talk among Democrats and Republicans about the optics of praising the effort that has left somewhere between 100 and 200 Americans still in the country, according to the latest estimate by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Biden also tried to assuage those concerns.
“The bottom line: 90 percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” he said during his nearly 30-minute remarks. “And for those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.”
The focus on evacuating more people from Kabul is likely to escalate as the federal government juggles several top priorities heading into September. The degree to which Democrats will be united around a refugee strategy remains to be seen, some said.
So far, the party has sustained differences in opinion over “policy” versus “process” during the withdrawal stages, with progressives stressing the importance of the former and moderates taking issue with the latter.
“The Democratic Party needs to be valuing both positions equally at the same time,” said Emily Amick, a lawyer and former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “I don’t think the party can choose one or the other. They have to choose both.”
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