Governments make policy errors all the time. It is rare, though, that such a serious misjudgment explodes into catastrophe with the speed that President’s Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to Taliban jihadists has.
To grasp the depth of Biden’s blunder, one needs to comprehend why American troops were in Afghanistan. Though there is no excuse for a president’s failure to understand the mission — or, worse, his reckless disregard for it — the public can be forgiven for its confusion about it. After all, administrations of both parties have spent two decades sowing confusion.
The principal mission, and the one whose abandonment brands Biden’s dereliction as surrender, has been counterterrorism. The mission is to deny anti-American terrorist organizations not just sanctuary but also operational partnership with the host regime.
Why don’t more Americans realize this?
Because the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, now as ever, allows American interests and motives to be defined — and thus distorted — by progressives and their Muslim-activist allies. These factions blame American policies rather than radical Islam’s anti-Western zeal for a generation of terrorist onslaught against the United States. They portray the U.S. military response to the 9/11 atrocities that killed nearly 3,000 Americans as an “occupation” — a provocative allegation because, in Islamist ideology, Muslims are obliged by sharia law to drive non-Muslim occupying powers out of Islamic territories.
In overreaction to these calumnies, U.S. administrations have made herculean efforts to be seen as a friend, rather than a foe, of Islamic societies. Ergo, our Afghan mission has been portrayed as an enterprise in democratic transformation to improve Afghan lives. We’ve been desperate to be seen as altruists: putting American lives on the line to protect Afghans from the wages of civil war; constructing for Afghans a centralized government with modern progressive institutions; walking on eggshells to avoid offending fundamentalist Islamic culture — pretending its stifling application of sharia was an asset, rather than a liability, as we gingerly pushed to protect women and religious minorities or enabled girls to be educated.
All very admirable … yet all very attenuated from promoting the national security of the United States. If we have learned nothing else these two decades, it is that a foreign policy of preening do-goodism may make progressives swoon but, for the broader public, its purported value dissipates if we are being asked to put our best and bravest young Americans in harm’s way for purposes that have little discernible connection to our defense. And this is especially the case when the populations for which we are sacrificing remain hostile and unappreciative.
As a diplomatic matter, Americans are all for promoting democracy. As a military matter, well, we’re not all quite as woke as Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyPoll: New Hampshire Senate race tight Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' We've left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who perhaps should have spent a bit less time immersed in critical race theory and a bit more on Afghanistan. If we’re going to commit American forces, it has to be in furtherance of vital American interests. Otherwise, foreign military expeditions lose political support, which is critical to their sustenance and effectiveness in a democracy.
The government resisted leveling with the public about the overarching counterterrorism mission: about the fact that we’d be at it for many years, that the protection of our homeland and our interests depended on it, but that it would involve modest deployment levels compared to those of hot wars — the kind of wars that counterterrorism aims to preempt.
The failure to communicate this forthrightly became an opening for populists and demagogues. Of these, President BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE has been the worst offender.
To be sure, under the puerile reasoning of former President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE’s “forever war” diatribes, the Second World War — though it ended over 75 years ago — is “endlessly” continuing because we still deploy well over 100,000 troops in Europe and the South Pacific (i.e., more than 40 times the number we had in Afghanistan until recently). But for all his bloviating, Trump did not end the counterterrorism mission.
Biden instantly pulled the plug on it. He not only echoed Trump’s “forever war” trope; he shamefully elaborated that “America’s daughters and sons” had been sent “to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not.” In point of fact, Americans were sent to Afghanistan to secure Americans from jihadists attacks, not to fight in Afghanistan’s civil war; and in the latter war, Afghan troops we trained have fought and died by the tens of thousands — nearly 70,000, compared to fewer than 2,500 American military deaths in 20 years.
Of course, the haste of a president to abandon a mission vital to American national security does not evaporate the evils that make the mission necessary.
Biden misses a rudimentary point when he posits that we do not need a military presence to quell al Qaeda in Afghanistan because we check the terror network in other countries without such a presence. Put aside that this is largely false — we do maintain small troop deployments in such countries as Somalia and Mali. The challenge in Afghanistan is jihadists aligned with, and operating under the protection of, a pro-jihadist regime.
So what has happened? Biden surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban, al Qaeda’s longtime partner and patron. Even before all American troops were pulled out, the country became a platform for jihadist attacks against the United States — last week’s bombings by the Afghan franchise of ISIS, a breakaway faction of al Qaeda, that killed 13 members of our armed forces, along with more than 200 Afghans.
Absurdly, the Biden administration suggests that this is in spite of the Taliban takeover, not because of it. But on seizing Kabul, the Taliban placed in charge of the city’s security the head of the Haqqani jihadist organization — the close ally of the Taliban and al Qaeda — a designated terrorist so notorious that the U.S. long has had a $5 million bounty on him. Regardless of whether ISIS coordinated with the Haqqanis, the Taliban’s conquest meant the jihadists had no difficulty attacking Americans — which just happens to line up with the Taliban goal as making America’s withdrawal painful and humiliating.
Even the swift U.S. retaliation underscores Biden’s folly. The administration’s claims that significant ISIS players were killed cannot be taken at face value; we need to know who was struck in our drone attack, and so far officials are mum. But even if we give them the benefit of the doubt — which Biden hardly rates given his jaw-dropping incompetence in this affair — we were able to hit the culprits quickly because we still have U.S. intelligence assets in-country, which our air power could exploit.
We will now have no presence in Afghanistan — no real-time intelligence capability to coordinate with “over the horizon” air power that is well over a thousand miles away. Meanwhile, an anti-American jihadist regime controls territory, providing sanctuary for anti-American jihadist factions to plot attacks against the U.S., when they’re not busy hunting down Afghans who cooperated with Americans over the past two decades.
Biden has dismantled the counterterrorism mission that safeguarded Americans from a reprise of 9/11. Bereft of this countering mission, what we’re left with is the terrorism.
Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, a Fox News contributor and the author of several books, including “Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.