Creating American hostages, abandoning Afghan allies
Today, Aug. 31, 2021, is another day that will live in infamy — but not because of foreign aggression against America. The recent incompetence and callousness of our government toward both the Afghan and American people make it also a day of national shame. The Afghanistan debacle will forever mark the Biden tenure as a disaster, and a bitter validation of Robert Gates’s 2020 indictment that Biden had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy issue in the last 40 years.”
Biden has acknowledged his erratic behavior, saying that his vote against the first Gulf War and for the second Gulf War were both mistakes. Among other examples are his opposition to the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and his enthusiastic support for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Yet, his entire presidential campaign was premised on his claim of unique foreign policy judgment and experience to serve as commander in chief. The world now sees that the U.S. president’s judgment may be permanently flawed and that he has learned nothing — or all the wrong lessons — from his long government service.
Biden pays lip service to “taking responsibility … the buck stops here,” while pointing the finger of blame at a) former President Trump, b) the Afghan government, c) the Afghan army, d) U.S. intelligence, e) his own generals, and finally, f) the Afghan people for resisting emigration until it was too late.
Adam Bates of the International Refugee Assistance Project took offense at Biden’s blame-the-victim charge: “President Biden’s repeated claim that Afghan refugees don’t really want to leave is false and appalling.” Biden’s other excuses for his own willful failures also do not pass muster.
It is true that Trump pledged to end the “forever war” in Afghanistan every bit as strongly as Biden said he would terminate the “endless war.” And Trump did negotiate with the Taliban, even planning to invite its leaders to Camp David, believing he could win them over as successfully as he believes he had charmed China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Trump also showed U.S. goodwill by following the example of former President Obama who released five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo — including two senior commanders linked to the killings of American and allied troops and thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan — in exchange for the return of U.S. defector Bowe Bergdahl in May 2014. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump criticized the Obama deal as well as his other prisoner swap with Iran.
In 2018, however, the Trump administration urged Pakistan to release one of the Taliban’s imprisoned founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as a likely good-faith negotiating partner to facilitate an orderly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Baradar met with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department on Sept. 12, 2020.
In February 2020, the Trump team reached an agreement with the Taliban, which committed itself to “prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.” By July 15, 2020, the U.S. would reduce its forces to 8,600 and, along with its Coalition allies, would withdraw all their forces from five military bases. Trump actually reduced forces to 2,500.
In addition, “as a confidence-building measure,” Washington committed the Afghan government, which was not part of the negotiation, to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan soldiers. The last 400, the most hardcore Taliban, were released just before the Baradar-Pompeo meeting.
The final provision of the agreement obligated the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government for “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire [and] the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.” It also stated that all “parts above are interrelated.” As Trump and Pompeo have argued, the agreement was “conditions-based” — and the Taliban did not meet its obligations either to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government or to eliminate the threat to U.S. and Coalition forces from other terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS-K.
U.S. departure from Afghanistan was to be completed by May 1, 2021. Biden officials say that when they took office on Jan. 20, “there was no interagency planning on how to execute a withdrawal.” If true, that meant Biden’s team had to develop such a plan over the next 100 days, extend the withdrawal date to allow more time for an orderly pullout, or cancel and renegotiate it. They chose to extend the withdrawal date to Aug. 31, but apparently did little to implement their own interagency planning during the first three months or during the additional four. Getting out fast, and at all costs, was Biden’s priority. Chaos inevitably ensued.
Biden argues, “There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.” The reality was otherwise. Military experts have stated that a minimal force — 3,000 to 4,000 troops — could have at least preserved the status quo while allowing for the orderly exit Trump and Biden say they wanted.
Trump calls on Biden to resign “in disgrace” and asserts, “If I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal. … Taliban leaders … understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable.” Given Trump’s record, the claim is credible.
But Trump also disturbingly validated an especially dishonorable Biden hypothesis for the collapse of the Afghan army. “I knew they weren’t going to fight. … Why are these Afghan soldiers fighting against the Taliban? They were doing it for a paycheck because once we stopped, once we left, they stopped fighting. So all of the people that talk about the bravery and everything … we were sort of bribing them to fight.” That will afford little comfort to the widows and children of the tens of thousands of dead Afghan soldiers.
In the end, Trump and Biden shared a low opinion of America’s Afghan allies and it influenced their collective decisions to pull the plug on the 20-year venture. Like their predecessors, neither saw the value to U.S. national interest in an indefinite, low-level, lower-cost U.S. presence devoted to counterterrorism and sufficient to contain the Taliban’s ambitions. Today’s shame and tragedy is all on Biden. Tomorrow’s will flow from two decades of limited presidential vision and unwillingness to level with the American people.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
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