On the menu today: After more than four days of silence concerning the Afghanistan disaster, President Joe Biden addressed the nation and confirmed all of the worst suspicions of his critics. And the federal government finally gets around to publicly discussing the need for COVID-vaccine boosters this autumn, as this newsletter suggested last week.
Biden’s Indefensible Defense
From 11:15 a.m., Thursday, August 12, to a little past 4 p.m., Monday, August 16, President Joe Biden did not appear in public. For a little more than four days, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and Americans witnessed the horrific sight of desperate Afghans clinging to planes and falling to their deaths, the president offered no explanation beyond a terse, released written statement and a photo of the president that neglected to crop out the teleconference screens labeled “CIA” and “Doha Station.”
When the president did finally speak, he read from a teleprompter for 20 minutes, took no questions, and barely acknowledged that he had assured Americans, at the beginning of July, that no part of this disaster would unfold this way. The lone admission was a vague, passive-voice, “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” a strong nominee for the Disingenuous Public Relations Spin Hall of Fame.
Biden instead relitigated the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. He made no defense of how that withdrawal is proceeding, because in large part, it is indefensible.
Biden’s account of his decision-making acknowledged that the Taliban intimidated us — or perhaps more specifically, him — and that we sought no further conflict with them:
U.S. forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in country, and the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.
The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.
Biden announced to the world that he finds everything that we’re witnessing preferable to fighting the Taliban.
A little more than a month after Biden assured Americans that, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” the president had the audacity to claim that, “We were clear-eyed about the risks.”
As he made a decision that would leave almost every Afghan man, woman, and child to the tender mercies of the Taliban, and that would see public executions and forced “marriages” return, Biden had the nerve to claim that, “I have been clear that human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery.”
Biden denounced the Afghan army that five weeks ago he called “better trained, better equipped, more competent in terms of conducting war.” He contended that, “We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support,” when that is not the case. “In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters.”
Biden criticized Afghan political leaders for refusing to negotiate with the Taliban forces that are now hunting them down and murdering them: “If the political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down, they would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.”
Biden asserted that “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” and indeed, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled, reportedly with cash. But Biden did not mention that the Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh is currently organizing a guerrilla movement in the Panjshir Valley.
Biden pledged that, “Over the coming days, we intend to transport out thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan.” This was his subtle acknowledgment that “thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country.”
All of this makes it hard to believe Biden’s claim that his administration had plans in place to “respond to every constituency.” (I think he meant “contingency.”) Apparently, our deliberate plan was to:
- Leave Bagram Air Base without telling the local Afghan commander, leaving it to get looted before the Afghan military could take over;
- Leave ourselves only the option of Kabul International Airport for airlifting people in and out of the country;
- Evacuate our troops before we evacuated civilians; and
- Not leave enough forces on the ground to ensure a safe evacuation of civilians, so that we needed to send 3,000 more personnel into the country.
Biden also said that, “In the coming days, the U.S. military will provide assistance to move more [Special Immigrant Visa]-eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan war veteran Matt Zeller, cofounder of the nonprofit No One Left Behind, contends that the administration is wildly undercounting how many Afghans worked for us and are now at risk.
“We had all the people and equipment in place to save these people months ago — and we did nothing. I’m appalled that [President Biden] thinks we only need to take 2,000 people. There’s 86,000 people who are currently left behind in Afghanistan alone,” Zeller said. “We’ve identified them for the government.”
Biden concluded, “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. We severely degraded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
This is the part of the speech that should worry the most ardent advocate of withdrawal. “Severely degraded” is not the same as eliminated, and after the experience of ISIS in Iraq, we have good reason to suspect that Islamist extremism is like kudzu — unless you clear it all out, it grows back quickly. The Taliban are openly telling CNN interviewers that “One day mujahedeen will have victory and Islamic law will come not just to Afghanistan, but all over the world. We are not in a hurry. We believe it will come one day. Jihad will not end until the last day.”
There is no indication that the Taliban have abandoned their past support of al-Qaeda or other Islamist terrorist groups. A spring 2020 report from the United Nations painted a portrait of the Taliban indicating they have learned nothing, and have changed nothing:
The senior leadership of Al-Qaida remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban. A number of significant Al-Qaida figures were killed in Afghanistan during the reporting period. Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy. The challenge will be to secure the counter-terrorism gains to which the Taliban have committed, which will require them to suppress any international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. . . .
Some Member States reported that the Taliban appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al-Qaida rather than the opposite. One Member State reported that the regularity of meetings between Al-Qaida seniors and the Taliban “made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction”. The link was described not in simple terms of group-to-group, but rather as “one of deep personal ties (including through marriage) and long-term sense of brotherhood”. Al-Qaida capitalizes on this through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance and financial support. The Taliban offensive against Ghazni City in August 2018 was a prime example of the effective deployment of Al-Qaida support.
Even if you believe that the U.S. has no vital interest in the human-rights situation in Afghanistan, we have a vital interest in ensuring that whoever is controlling Afghanistan is not renting out space to Islamist terrorist groups for their training camps. The line between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is awfully blurry. If the Taliban had turned over Osama bin Laden in 2001, we never would have invaded.
For many years — since at least 2013 — American leaders in both parties have expressed an odd faith in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This was always a naïve, nonsensical strategy that relied on the trustworthiness of an untrustworthy group; as I wrote back then, “They’re the Taliban, and they’re trying to kill our soldiers. Why do we think we can trust them to keep their word? And if we can’t trust them to keep their word on their end of the agreement, why are we negotiating with them?”
Now it is clear what kind of president we have, after all the strutting about “America is back!” and the photo-ops at international summits are done. And even Biden’s former colleagues and political allies are shuddering:
“He didn’t really spend much time on the issue that I think really concerns the American people, which is the execution of that decision. What went wrong and how it is going to be fixed?” said Leon E. Panetta, a longtime adviser to Democratic presidents who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama. “It just struck me that they were crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result. And it doesn’t work that way.”
Panetta, who said he has been unsure what to tell the numerous contacts in Afghanistan calling him seeking a way out of the country, said, “Right now it just does not look like we have our act together.” He expressed surprise at the seeming lack of preparation.
“We’re going to pay for that for a long time to come, and that’s why it is insane — just idiotic — to think that we can tell the Taliban that if they don’t stop taking over territory and play nice, the international community will withhold recognition and support,” he said. “The Taliban really doesn’t care, because they’ve got something far more valuable.”
Crocker said he also worries the Taliban could again harbor terrorist groups, while U.S. intelligence agencies will be less capable of tracking threats in the country after the withdrawal.
“We have seen this movie before,” he said. “This would be the Taliban of the 1990s that gave safe haven to al-Qaida, except they’re meaner and tougher than they were then because of what they’ve been through.”
“I’m left with some grave questions in my mind about his ability to lead our nation as commander-in-chief,” Crocker said. “To have read this so wrong – or, even worse, to have understood what was likely to happen and not care.”
NATO allies are shaken, said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, who described Biden’s address to the nation as an “unrepentant” message that “might fly in the US, but won’t do much for American leadership in the world.” Officials across Europe told POLITICO they worry Biden’s actions in Afghanistan may be discrediting the western alliance.
Yesterday afternoon, President Biden returned to Camp David. He has no public events on his schedule today.
ADDENDUM: This newsletter said on August 13 that: “If the 44 million American senior citizens who are fully vaccinated are going to need boosters in the fall, it is probably a good idea to start openly discussing this now — instead of mid August FDA statements declaring that ‘individuals who are fully vaccinated are adequately protected and do not need an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine at this time.’”
CNN, this morning: “Top health officials in the Biden administration are coalescing around an agreement that most Americans should get Covid booster shots eight months after becoming fully vaccinated, two sources familiar with the discussions tell CNN. The plan, which is still being developed, would involve administering third shots beginning in mid- to late September, one source added, pending authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. . . . The plan could be announced as soon as this week, though the timing could slide.”