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Biden blames others, but the errors are his in Afghanistan’s crisis

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Nearly 20 years after America’s longest war began, the dramatic dash for the exit has yielded an unmitigated tragedy. This chapter in American history did not have to end this way, principally because the Taliban already had violated their commitments under the deeply flawed U.S. agreement last year to draw down military forces. The haste of the American military retreat expedited the descent in chaos. As Americans choose how to remember the war in Afghanistan, there is plenty of blame to go around. We may have failed to learn many of the lessons of the past two decades, but President Biden’s misapprehension in Afghanistan is perhaps the most grievous among them.

The Biden administration’s flaccid response has been uninspiring. As the Taliban rapidly gained strongholds, the White House could only muster vacant reminders that the international community would be watching the Taliban’s actions. The farcical encouragement to the barbarians at the gates to “make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community” is tone-deaf — as if the mullahs among the Taliban are interested in joining cocktail parties in Georgetown. For the U.S. citizens, interpreters or collaborators fleeing guaranteed persecution, the White House seemed content to hold firm to vacuous assurances the Taliban would facilitate safe passage.

As the crisis metastasized, Biden appeared aloof to the events unfolding on the ground. When he finally emerged from Camp David after the Taliban declared an Islamic Emirate, he struck a defiant tone, casting blame widely — at his predecessor, the Afghan president and security forces and, of course, the omnipresent nation-builders. He omitted culpability for the melee that his decisions unleashed. History repeatedly has taught us that nothing good arises when America is observed to be weak.

Some have suggested the events of the past week confirm the folly of nation-building. The project in Afghanistan was doomed to fail, they say, because liberty and peace cannot be enforced through force. This well-worn caricature fundamentally misunderstands the mission of the U.S.-led forces since the transition years ago from combat operations, a forgivable oversight since the campaign has fallen so low on our nation’s priorities. To achieve stability, a small, residual security presence has operated for years primarily in a support capacity to the Afghan security forces, whom the president accused in his White House speech of not fighting to defend their own country. 

Nearly 70,000 Afghanis died — many alongside or in front of coalition forces — defending their homeland. Biden’s callous comments betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the battlefield psychology that accelerated the country’s rapid implosion. When the U.S. unceremoniously withdrew combat support, including intelligence and contract logistical support, what choice did the security forces have when faced with the Faustian bargain from the advancing Taliban? 

There are other critics who simply wanted to cut and run, ending our so-called “forever war” regardless of the consequences. Another five or 10 years would have made no difference, they argue; the project in Afghanistan has gone on long enough, so we have nothing to lose in exiting because we have gained nothing by staying. These critics conveniently forget the series of events that led us to Afghanistan originally, and seem more intent on re-litigating the arguments of the past than facing new strategic decisions ahead with prudence.  

Perhaps this is why Biden felt compelled to remind Americans of his failed opposition to President Obama’s surge over a decade ago. He was wrong then, just as he is wrong now. No doubt mistakes have been made over the years, but we’re about to be reminded what failure really looks like. For nearly 20 years the American-led presence has kept at bay the terror threat and prevented Afghanistan from being used as a haven for extremists targeting our homeland.  No longer. Stability is an undervalued asset in international relations. In diplomacy, as in life, you never fully appreciate what you have until it’s gone.

What political pressure did Biden face to take such action while ignoring his military advisers and intelligence assessments? National security barely makes it into the top 10 most important issues voters care about these days (except for immigration, which polls No. 2). Was it so that he could say that by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 he could finally bring home our troops? That momentous occasion, usually marked by hallowed remembrance, will now become an odious symbol of the triumph of the Taliban and a lasting stain on the American psyche.

While many politicians are inclined to follow public opinion, leaders shape it. On Monday, as Kabul was falling, a new poll found public support for full military withdrawal declined 20 percent since the spring. Policymaking, like polling, is best understood when considering trade-offs. So when presented with potential costs of full withdrawal (i.e., the Taliban regains control), a plurality of respondents no longer assent. To have relied on cute slogans to drive complex foreign policy decisions has been misguided.

Given what many are now beginning to recognize as the cost of retreat, retaining a small, persistent security presence (as we do in many countries) was clearly the best option. The government in Afghanistan had its share of challenges, which many young nations encounter.  However, the 38 million Afghans who were slowly building better lives for themselves could point to modest gains. Over the past week, that progress has been erased. What America has lost — including having an ally and air bases sandwiched between Iran, Pakistan and China — far outweighs what we may have gained in retreat.

Under no circumstance, despite what some critics might believe, has the war in Afghanistan been a complete and utter failure — until now. Responsibility for that rests completely with the Biden administration. The damage to U.S. prestige and credibility will be felt for decades. For all the bluster and mismanagement of the situation in Afghanistan by the Biden administration, our adversaries have taken inventory as well.

If his intent was to clean the slate for his successors, Biden surely made their job more challenging, all but guaranteeing the region becomes less manageable. His decision will saddle future leaders with the consequences for years to come. Progress is difficult and sometimes requires patience. Hard-fought gains are easily reversed. When the chapter on the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan closes, just remember that it did not have to end this way. 

Andrew McClure is a visiting fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute and an investor at a venture capital firm focused on cybersecurity. He served in Afghanistan in 2010 as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps and remains in the Marine Reserve.

Tags Barack Obama Joe Biden Taliban War in Afghanistan Withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan

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