The Bible says that “Pride goeth before a fall.” So, was it pride that motivated Joe Biden, our cool and calculating president, our FDR of the 21st century, to miscalculate so badly the easily foreseeable consequences of his decision to abandon Afghanistan? This may be a question that haunts him, and many of the rest of us, for many years.
Just two weeks ago he was on a roll, riding a wave of public acclaim as he and his team steered a huge infrastructure bill through the Senate. By attracting 19 republican votes for this bill, which is certain to pass the House, Biden became the first president in a long time to get a bipartisan bill through the deadlocked, partisan Congress. Pundits were giving him a good chance to get a second and much more expensive “soft” infrastructure bill through the Congress with Democratic votes. His truly transformational agenda for the US was off to a good start.
Now the catastrophic Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, has placed a dark shadow of doubt over his whether he can continue on this streak of political success. In fact, if it ends as badly as the worst-case scenario—a violent confrontation between the US troops and the Taliban foot soldiers and/or tens of thousands of our Afghan allies left behind to be targets of the Taliban—his party could suffer defeat in the 2022 off-year election. The authoritarian opposition Republican Party in charge of the Senate and/or the House would be the end of his presidency, and possibly a death sentence for American democracy. Now Biden, who many saw as possibly a transformational figure in the league of Franklin Roosevelt, looks suddenly like just another flawed leader, possibly as flawed as his predecessor. Our dreams of a resurgent, transformed America look more like the nightmare of the previous administration.
How could Biden have made such a poor decision? Or was it really a poor decision? Biden continues to argue that it wasn’t, and that the decision to take American forces out of Afghanistan was a necessary one for American long-term interests–and one long overdue. And that is probably our clue as to why he decided as he did.
Biden took great pride in his long public record of decrying the war in Afghanistan as a “quagmire,” as our intervention in Vietnam came to be called in the 1970s. He did so from the very beginning, while on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Vice President under Obama, and ending the “forever war” was a strong point in his campaign for the Presidency. I believe his pride at having been the most vocal and consistent critic of the war since the beginning, and having promised to end it if elected, drove him to ignore all his military and most of his civilian advisors’ advice to kick the can down the road. These advisors certainly knew how unready the US was to undertake the immense evacuation that would be required, and certainly made the President aware of that.
Another factor that may have influenced Biden is that much of the present mess is the result of decisions made by Trump and a vicious racist tactic used by the Trump administration to slow walk the decision to ramp up the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program designed to accommodate and facilitate the exodus from Afghanistan US leaders knew was coming when the US actually departed. The primary Trump decision that left Biden in a real bind was the agreement he approved and wanted between the US and the Taliban, in which inter alia, the US agreed to withdraw in 2021, and the Taliban agreed to not attack Americans. That seems to have been the only parts of the agreement that interested Trump. It is likely that Trump, had he been reelected in 2020, would have declared victory and withdrawn ignoring our responsibility to evacuate the Afghans who would fear the Taliban and seek to leave. The agreement also excluded the Afghan government and Afghan civil society, which made it non-starter in reality. It also required the Taliban to engage in negotiations for that would seek a political solution. The Trump administration paid little or no attention to the Taliban’s failure to follow through on their agreement to do so. In effect there was absolutely no requirement for the US to withdraw. Biden inherited an impossible conundrum—an agreement signed by his predecessor’s government in which only the US had carried out its part. But having noted all the reasons we should not have felt compelled to carry out our part of the agreement, I believe that Biden charged ahead on his conviction that it was his chance to make happen what he had always believed should happen—we should withdraw from Afghanistan.
One part of the defense for the decision by Biden and his team—that they did not believe the Taliban could capitalize on it so quickly, that the blinding speed of their takeover was a surprise – is true. Despite the alleged warnings of some of the intelligence briefings the White House was getting that the country could collapse very quickly, most observers and experts were astonished by the speed of the takeover. Government officials get used to intelligence agencies giving a range of outcomes including “the worst-case scenario,” which almost never turns out to be the case. I think now that we did not understand how demoralizing the US departure would be to the Afghan Army. US troops had not had a combat role for the past few years, and US casualties had been very low for some years; the Afghans were doing all the fighting—and the dying. It was not just because their trainers and advisors were disappearing that the Afghan Army crumbled. Not only were the US troops disappearing, so were the contractors who kept the Afghan army, and in this case the Afghan air force flying. Among other mistakes we made was to train the Afghan army to fight like our army, with great reliance on close tactical air support. That was disappearing with the Americans. The Taliban don’t have an air force, and they were winning battles anyway (but not always holding territory), but the idea of trying to fight the Taliban without air support probably struck most Afghan Army personnel as a bridge too far. And without meaning any disparagement, I think it is a hallowed tradition in Afghan wars to change sides if the side one is on looks to be the loser. In this case, it appears that most of the Afghan army did not change sides (it might be a little dangerous to join an army as fixated on vengeance as the Taliban). They just went home. And just one additional point on this subject: many Afghan soldiers had their monthly pay routinely stolen by their superiors, which is not a good way of maintaining their loyalty and willingness to risk their lives.
The above speculation is not to defend that decision, but only to explain how even the most experienced political leader gets lost sometimes among his own emotions. I believe it was a bad decision. I will explain this below. But how bad the decision was is not yet clear. As I wrote last week, it will depend on whether Biden and the US military are able to pull off what looks to be the largest evacuation ever in the shortest time ever. It is chaos in Kabul and it is totally unclear to most of us how that is going and how we expect to evacuate another 150,000 people before August 31. I believe over 100,000 have already been evacuated, yet we hear the task in nowhere near done. I hesitate to write more on this as the situation is changing almost by the minute.
Many Cassandras argue that the US will lose much credibility in the world, especially if many of the Afghans we are obligated morally to protect end up being left behind in Afghanistan. Others argue that our counter terrorism efforts will be undercut both by the fact that the Taliban are likely to welcome Al Qaeda back (it never broke the ties it pledged to break) and shelter other transnational terrorist organizations a space to plan attacks on the West. There are other arguments which point to other international consequences that will erode our influence in the world and reduce our power, and in particular, speed up the rise of authoritarianism everywhere.
There are merits to all these arguments, and though I do not accept any of them fully, I do expect we have a lot of repair work to do in the world in the coming decades. My main critique of Biden’s action is on a different level: by charging ahead to fulfill his deeply held conviction about the futility and immorality of the Afghan war, he has put the entire, very fragile transformation of America project at risk. And by putting that at great risk, he puts American democracy itself in great peril. If the decision on Afghanistan leads to Democratic defeat in 2022, the American transformation project is probably over.
By charging ahead to fulfill his deeply held conviction about the futility and immorality of the Afghan war, he has put the entire, very fragile transformation of America project at risk
Does Biden really understand what he has started, and the stakes involved in continuing it. He seems to when he speaks of the motto he has chosen for the project, “build back better,” but certainly forgot it when it came to Afghanistan. Any second-rate politician could have figured out how to kick the can down the road. But the important thing now is to get all those endangered Afghans out.
The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.
How long did you want US to babysit Afghanistan, another 20 years? Afghans have to understand that it is their country and they have to look after or safeguard it.Americans are not supposed to do it in perpetuity. Afghan army, after being trained for over a decade, could not lay down their lives for safeguarding their mother land, deserve zero mercy and understanding. Why are Americans mandated to keep Afghanistan intact? If Afghans have zero love for their country, they deserve to head to the private hell they are going to visit soon.