The Memo: Biden faces grim reality in Afghanistan

The Memo: Biden faces grim reality in Afghanistan
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The Taliban are on the march in Afghanistan — and President BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE is in a no-win situation.

Biden is adamant that he made the right decision when he announced in April that he would withdraw U.S. forces. But the Taliban have expanded their territory as the Americans have left. The prospect of the fundamentalist group retaking control of the nation is very real.

The Taliban have claimed nine provincial capitals in just the past week. A senior European Union official has told reporters that the Afghan government retains clear-cut control of only 65 of Afghanistan’s 400-plus districts, according to The Associated Press.

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The AP also reported that U.S. intelligence believes the capital Kabul could come under pressure from the advancing Taliban forces within 30 days.

The American public has no appetite for a continued large-scale commitment in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. But a triumph for the Taliban would be a significant embarrassment for Biden nonetheless.

Such an outcome would surely be trumpeted by conservative media as a purported example of presidential weakness — even though former President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE also favored withdrawal from a nation that has long been a quagmire for occupying forces.

Footage of the Taliban sweeping back into power would be bad enough for Biden. But if Afghanistan were to once again become a base for terrorist groups bent on attacking the United States — as it was for al-Qaeda in the lead-up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 —  the political price would be exponentially higher.

“I do not regret my decision” to withdraw, Biden told reporters in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. “Afghan leaders have to come together … They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”

The problem is, there is no sign of that happening.

In just the past few days, the country’s finance minister has resigned and fled the country, and the army’s chief of staff has been replaced. There are also reports of Afghan troops simply leaving the battlefield, even though they are said to outnumber the Taliban.

Those developments in turn vaporize any incentive for the Taliban to commit to the peace talks that Washington wants to see. No fighting force craves a negotiated settlement to a conflict it is winning.

Referring to Biden’s decision to withdraw, Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest told this column: “I think he felt it would be popular with the American people, but I don’t think he really understood the consequences and just how fast the country was going to fall. Historically, I am not shocked by this but I think Joe Biden is going to have his ‘Saigon moment.’ ”

Biden has pushed back against precisely that idea, at least as it pertains to American forces withdrawing amid chaos as happened in Vietnam. Indeed, many of the 2,500 U.S. troops who remained in Afghanistan at the start of this year have already left. The fabled Bagram Air Base has been back in Afghan control since early July.

But that is not enough to insulate Biden from domestic political damage.

“Even if there is this bipartisan lack of interest — ordinary Americans are weary — it is already politically bad for Biden because I think people can see that you can’t pretend this is a war we won,” said Toby Harnden, a journalist and author who has a new book about the early stages of the conflict, “First Casualty: ​​The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11,” set for release next month.

“It doesn’t look good for any president to preside over defeat or withdrawal,” Harnden added, “but if in the future there were to be terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan, that would be a really serious problem.”

Harnden and Kazianis are among those who think there was a case to be made for keeping a modest number of U.S. troops in the country as a way of curbing the Taliban’s advances. 

Harnden contends that the idea of Afghanistan as a “forever war” involves “faulty logic.” The U.S. maintains a military presence in Germany and Japan, he noted, and no one sees those deployments as evidence that the Second World War is still going on.

Recalling the 100,000-plus U.S. troops who were in Afghanistan at the war’s peak, he added: “We have lurched from all to nothing, and there is a lot of middle ground there.”

Kazianis’s prediction is that, with respect to total withdrawal, “history is going to look back on this as a mistake when it seems like maybe 2,500 troops were going to hold the line. Being a superpower means sometimes you have to leave some troops in places that you really don’t want to.”

But there are plenty of others who see things in a very different way.

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The argument for withdrawal from Afghanistan — which finds plenty of supporters across the political spectrum — is simple. Why and how would the U.S. secure a stable society in Afghanistan if it extended its military commitment to 21, 22 or 25 years? It has not been able to do so in 20 years.

“The American people ask the question, are we responsible for the country of Afghanistan? And the answer to that is a resounding no across the board,” said Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda  The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE’s administration.

“Of course there is broad bipartisan support for the United States government to engage diplomatically. But are we responsible, militarily, for stabilizing that country? No, I don’t think you would find any pockets [of American opinion] to say that’s the case.”

Dakota Wood, who served for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps and is now senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, largely agreed.

Looking back at U.S. involvement across four presidential administrations — two Republican and two Democratic — Wood told this column, “Each commander would come in militarily; each State Department senior official was always promising: '‘We are turning the corner! Next year we will achieve some kind of breakthrough settlement!’ "

“But there was always a ‘next year,’ ” he added. “The window of opportunity finally just ran out.”

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Biden for now remains resolute. The U.S. is pulling out.

The trouble is, the price for that withdrawal is yet to be determined.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.