Joe Biden has been wrong about most major foreign-policy questions all of his adult life, but — as a long-time senator and then vice president — didn’t have much power to do anything about it.
That’s no longer the case, and we are now seeing the gut-wrenching consequences in Afghanistan, where Biden rejected the advice of his military and intelligence officials and ignored the clear evidence on the ground, and ordered a calamitous U.S. withdrawal.
Despite the president’s fantastical assurances a little over a month ago that Afghan security forces had the situation well in hand and there’d definitely be no hasty Saigon-style evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, the Afghan government has dissolved, the Taliban control Kabul, and the U.S. Embassy has indeed been hastily evacuated.
In chaotic scenes, Afghans swarmed the tarmac of Kabul International Airport, desperately trying to escape.
Even as the Taliban’s advance accelerated in recent weeks, Biden insisted on staying the course, with his top envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his press secretary Jen Psaki farcically warning the Taliban that if they took the country by force, they would lack international legitimacy, as if these ruthless Islamists — given to suicide bombings, assassinations, and the brutal oppression of women — care a whit what anyone thinks about them at Turtle Bay or Davos.
The Trump administration set in motion the events that led to the current debacle, with a preposterous “peace deal” with the Taliban. The agreement obligated the U.S. to leave by May of this year, although the Taliban obviously negotiated in bad faith and were in violation of the deal from the beginning. It would have taken resolve and finesse for Biden to back out of the deal, but this administration has shown no reluctance to reverse field in other areas, such as Iran or the Paris climate accords. Doing so in Afghanistan would have been much better than abandoning a minimal, sustainable American commitment that kept in place a stalemate that was vastly better than the alternative.
Even if Biden insisted on pulling out, there was no reason to do it this heedlessly and incompetently — in the middle of fighting season and a gathering Taliban offensive, without any alternative U.S. base in the region, without any substitute for U.S. air support or the Americans contractors who kept Afghan planes in the sky, without an orderly process to get out vulnerable Afghans who helped us over the years, and without a plan to secure the airport in Kabul.
The Biden administration prides itself on its alleged professionalism, especially in contrast to its predecessor, but this was rank ineptitude that made the situation much worse for no reason.
Does the stunning rapidity of the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces mean, as some on the anti-interventionist right have argued, that this entire 20-year-long chapter was misbegotten? There’s no doubt that we were often ignorant and naïve about Afghanistan, and the tribal, balkanized nature of the country was a formidable obstacle to the development of coherent, self-sustaining national institutions. Still, with the U.S. in a support role, Afghan government forces were able to fight and hold off the Taliban for years.
The problem was that the Afghan army was built on a foundation of U.S. air support and maintenance, and when those were removed, its forces instantly became less capable. On top of this, the signal sent by Biden’s headlong retreat had a devastating effect on Afghan morale from the top on down. Factor in a politically maladroit Afghan government and endemic corruption, and once the Taliban began to roll up government surrenders in the provinces, their offensive took on a life of its own.
We went to Afghanistan in the first place only because the September 11 attacks emanated from there. Two decades later, the Taliban still have a relationship with al-Qaeda, and the country will certainly once again become a base for terrorist plotting against the U.S. and its interests. In 2001, the Taliban didn’t control the north of the country, but this time they have taken it all, with U.S. intelligence and our ability to undertake counterterrorism strikes both significantly degraded.
This is a debacle and, more than most acts of the U.S. government, it is the responsibility of one man — Joseph Robinette Biden.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Fall of Afghanistan