In Afghanistan, President Biden had to play the losing hand his predecessors dealt him
Since the collapse of the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan, the takeover of the country by the Taliban, and the ISIS-K attack that killed 13 American servicemen and women and 170 Afghans at Kabul airport, critics have blasted President Biden. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tied the “sickening and enraging deaths” to “the predictably chaotic wake of the president’s decision to withdraw” troops from the country. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, declared that Biden has “blood on his hands.” Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley called for his resignation or impeachment.
The president’s critics have been less forthcoming about the losing hand — and lack of viable options — his three predecessors dealt him.
The United States toppled the Taliban after Sept. 11, 2001, to ensure that Afghanistan no longer harbored Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. In the ensuing two decades, under presidents Bush and Obama, America’s attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq; the goals in Afghanistan became less clear, and seemed to include “nation-building” (i.e. establishing democratic institutions, protecting and promoting education for girls and opportunities for women). The Afghan governments under Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani became hopelessly corrupt: as much as 40 percent of Department of Defense contracts — billions of dollars — ended up in the hands of criminal syndicates and government officials, and a significant percentage of Afghan military units existed only on paper, with commanders pocketing money allocated to salaries, uniforms, and weapons.
This was hardly a recipe for attracting the loyalty of the people of Afghanistan or building an effective fighting force.
In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban struck a deal (without the participation of Ashraf Ghani’s government in the negotiations): U.S. forces would withdraw from the country in 14 months in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that terrorists would not use the country as a base of operations. The agreement was silent on matters of human rights. Taliban fighters “will be killing terrorists,” President Trump asserted. “They will be killing some very bad people. They will keep that fight going.” U.S. officials hoped the deal would lead to a coalition-government, but even when it didn’t, Trump reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 12,000 to 2,500 before he left office.
In April 2021, President Biden declared it was “time to end the forever war,” vetoed the recommendations of military advisers to keep a small force in the country, and announced the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops by Sept. 11. “I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan,” he said.
A compelling case has not been made that 2,500 American troops (and the capability to launch air strikes) would have deterred the Taliban from seizing control of a large country with 39 million people.
Nor is it at all clear, as some have claimed, that the United States could have planned and executed (even with the deployment of thousands more military personnel) an expedited, orderly, and safe evacuation of all American citizens and Afghan nationals from multiple departure points around the country — especially since doing so in the spring and early summer of 2021 would have undermined the Ghani regime (before it was certain how effective it might be in defending Kabul and provincial capitals). It likely would have been met with violence from the Taliban as well as ISIS-K and would have encouraged millions of Afghans to head to those departure points.
Given the ubiquity of images of mayhem and carnage at the airport and condemnation of Biden on virtually all media and social media outlets, it is not surprising that less than one-third of Americans currently support his handling of Afghanistan. That said, if history is a guide, the political damage to Biden may not last. In 1975, for example, following the disastrous evacuation of Saigon, President Gerald Ford’s approval actually ticked up. A few months later, a significant majority of Americans credited getting the United States out of Vietnam as Ford’s greatest accomplishment.
It’s worth noting that more than 60 percent of Americans approved of Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. That percentage is not likely to go down. And it is possible, it seems to me, that as time passes, a majority of Americans may conclude that despite the grievous loss of 13 American lives, ending America’s longest war, completing the largest non-combatant evacuation in U.S. history in so short a time, and under such dangerous conditions, is evidence of competence and compassion.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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