Rarely in modern presidential history have words come back so quickly that bite an American commander in chief as quickly as President Biden’s a little over five weeks ago: “There will be no circumstance in which people are lifted from the roof of an embassy” of the United States in Afghanistan. “
Then he dug the hole deeper and added, “The likelihood that the Taliban will overrun everything and own the whole country is very unlikely.”
On Sunday, the scramble to evacuate American civilians and embassy workers from Kabul unfolded – exactly the image that Mr Biden and his aides had to avoid at the recent meetings in the Oval Office – live on television, not from the roof of the US embassy, but from the Landing area next to the building. And now that the Afghan government has collapsed at astonishing speed, the Taliban certainly seem to have full control of the country back if the anniversary of September 11, 2001 is commemorated in less than a month of the attacks – just like that it was 20 summers ago.
Mr. Biden will go down in history, fair or unfair, as President who led a lengthy, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan. After seven months in which his administration seemed to be broadcasting much-needed skill – vaccinating more than 70 percent of the country’s adults, developing rapid job growth, and making progress towards a bipartisan infrastructure bill – everything shook America’s final days in Afghanistan the pictures.
Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies, who believe they have made the right decision to finally end a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in their national interest, admit that in carrying out the Withdrawal made a number of serious mistakes. The only question is how politically damaging these will be, or whether the Americans who cheered at the 2020 election rallies when both President Donald J. Trump and Mr Biden promised to leave Afghanistan will shrug their shoulders and say that it is had to end, even if it ended badly.
Mr. Biden knew the risks. He has often noted that he came into office with more foreign policy experience than any other president in recent times, arguably since Dwight D. Eisenhower. At meetings this spring about the impending U.S. withdrawal, Biden told staff it was crucial to avoid the kind of scene revealed by the iconic photos of Americans and Vietnamese climbing a ladder to a helicopter on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon when it was desperately evacuated in 1975 when the Viet Cong swept into town.
But after he decided in April to set September 11th as the date for the final American withdrawal, he and his aides failed to get the interpreters and others helping the American forces out of the country fast enough, and them Stuck in immigration papers. There was no reliable mechanism for contractors to keep the Afghan Air Force flying while the Americans packed up. The plan Mr Biden spoke of at the end of June, what he called what he called a “beyond the horizon” capability to strengthen the Afghan forces in the event of a threat to Kabul, was half-baked before those Afghan forces collapsed .
By their own admission, Mr Biden’s aides believed they had the luxury of time, perhaps 18 months or so, based on intelligence ratings that grossly overestimated the capabilities of an Afghan army that disintegrated, often before any shots were fired. On July 8, the same day he said there was no need to worry about an imminent takeover by the Taliban, Biden said the Taliban were “not even close in terms of the training and capabilities” of the Afghan security forces at “be their capacity.” He now knows that they have made up for the lack of capacity in strategy, determination and drive.
“There are lessons in how every government has dealt with Afghanistan from start to finish, and we owe it to the military and other Americans who risk their lives to use those lessons to make future decisions.” said Michèle Flournoy, who served as the No. 3 Pentagon official in the Obama administration and was a leading contender in defense of Mr. Biden.
“The question for the Biden administration will be whether sufficient contingency planning has been carried out to sustain critical counterterrorism operations,” and whether we are “meeting our obligations to the Afghans who helped us, the risks associated with the withdrawal and enable continued support “the Afghan military is viable.”
Even the most seasoned hands in South Asian politics, like Ryan Crocker, a retired career diplomat who served as ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama and Iraq under President George W. Bush, thought it was more time.
“A prolonged civil war is, frankly, more likely,” he said seven days ago in ABC’s This Week, “than a swift takeover of the entire country by the Taliban.” But he went on to say that Mr. Biden “now has full responsibility for President Trump’s pledges” to leave the country. “He owns it,” said Mr. Crocker. “And I think it’s already an indelible mark on his presidency.”
On Sunday, Mr. Biden was silent in public. The White House posted a photo of him in a video briefing at Camp David. He was to be seen alone in the photo, his helpers beamed in. And it was up to them to explain why, in July, he thought the Afghan forces would fight hard.
Republicans, including some of those who applauded Trump when he said he would get America out of Afghanistan by Christmas 2020, jumped at the pictures of Americans being evacuated and Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president who has no succession flees without a deal with the Taliban on the country’s future and without support.
“I think it’s an absolute disaster,” said Texas representative Michael McCaul on Sunday in CNN’s State of the Union, claiming that Afghanistan would become a “state before September 11, 2001 – a breeding ground for terrorism” to return. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken countered that the US ability to track down, track down and kill terrorists is far greater than it was two decades ago.
But Mr. McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared to be exploring topics for the next election season when he said of Mr. Biden, “He could have planned this. He could have had a strategy for that. “
Now, he said, “there is still no other strategy than speeding to the airport and evacuating as many people as possible.”
Indeed, there is a strategy, but not one that Mr Biden can easily sell given the images of chaos in Kabul. In his opinion, the years of reshuffling American foreign policy in response to the 9/11 attacks gave China room to stand up, Russia room to disrupt, Iran and North Korea room to focus on their nuclear ambitions. The escape from Afghanistan is part of a wider effort to refocus on key strategic challenges and new threats from cyberspace to space. But this weekend was proof that the past is never really in the past.
The government defended itself against criticism for not moving fast enough in Afghanistan by admitting that it was surprised by the speed of the collapse but insisted that there were plans. Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said a sample of the evacuation effort was “withheld until May” and that Marines from Iwo Jima were stationed to fly to Kabul.
“We have been quick to respond in the past few days because we were prepared for this emergency,” said Kirby.
But Mr Biden’s own words make it clear that he was confident that that day, if at all, would not come for a long time. He repeatedly said he did not regret his decision and would bear no responsibility if the Taliban took power, also because Trump signed the deal in February 2020 that set a date for full American withdrawal on May 1, 2021. (Although Mr. Biden extended the withdrawal date to September 11, almost all American troops were gone by early July.)
The result of the Trump-Taliban agreement, Biden said on Saturday, was that he was facing a Taliban force “in the strongest military position since 2001” and a date by which all American forces would have to be deposed.
Mr Blinken went around on Sunday to ask why more was not being done sooner to get Afghan interpreters out of the country for the US military and other allies threatened by Taliban retaliation. He was also asked why more Americans weren’t withdrawn from the embassy in Kabul earlier, as many at the Pentagon had requested, before the extent of the collapse became apparent.
“The inability of the Afghan security forces to defend their country has played a very important role,” Blinken said in NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
All true. But it is Mr Biden who may be remembered for his role in wildly overestimating the strength of the Afghan armed forces and not moving fast enough when it became clear that the scenarios presented to him were wrong.