President Biden bears some of the blame for the catastrophic collapse of the security situation in Afghanistan, but there is plenty to go around.
In his speech to the nation on Monday afternoon, the president made the case that while the recent developments in Afghanistan were dire, they were inevitable. He argued that there is “never a good time to withdraw US forces,” but based on agreements concluded by the previous administration and his own personal assessment of the situation, it was time to go.
President Biden admitted the intelligence failure that led to the dramatic events of the last week. He said the situation “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” in contrast to his confident prediction a month ago that the Afghans could hold back the Taliban.
Biden blames Afghans for catastrophe
Now Biden blames the Afghans for failing to defend their own freedom. The president noted we had spent over a trillion dollars to train and equip the Afghan forces but could not provide them the will to fight for their future. This is not entirely true since Afghan forces backed by US air power have borne the brunt of the fighting for years.
But the administration contributed to the collapse of Afghan will in recent weeks by continually emphasizing that America’s involvement was definitively and completely over, making it seem less like a force drawdown and more like total abandonment. The Taliban also wisely did not immediately begin to take retribution in the areas they were conquering, essentially sending a message to the dispirited Afghans that there was no reason to fight to the death, that surrender was a viable option. Soon it became the default option.
Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021.
The rolling Afghan defeat led to a hasty American retreat. Comparisons to the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 were ubiquitous. But the situation could be worse. It would have been easy for the Taliban to have created chaos at Hamid Karzai International, an urban airport with one runway, flanked by mountains. The means were many: mortaring the runway, suicide bombing the perimeter, sniping, spreading rumors to cause riots, employing portable anti-air weapons to threaten and maybe down transports. It might have made the massacre of Major General Sir William Elphinstone’s forces during their disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842 look like a minor military mishap.
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Yet when the Taliban declared Sunday that the war was over, it signaled that the Americans and others could leave unmolested. Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu taught that it is wise to leave a surrounded enemy a way out, because they will take it. And so, we did.
A defeat two decades in the making
Biden took responsibility for these unfortunate events, saying the buck stopped with him. But just as Gerald Ford was handed a bad situation in South Vietnam generated by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Biden was dealt his losing hand by Bush, Obama and Trump.This defeat was not two weeks in the making but two decades.
The fundamental problem was mission creep. As President Biden rightly pointed out, the United States achieved its original strategic objectives quickly, disrupting al Qaida and punishing the Taliban for giving global terrorism a safe haven.
But we then took on a nation-building mission which was not suited to the complex, decentralized, tribally based politics of Afghanistan.The United States could create stability, for a price, but could not transform a country shaped by centuries of ingrained traditions. Nor should we have tried.
James S. Robbins:Biden still has a chance to save Afghanistan by learning the lesson of Operation Linebacker
American domestic politics helped keep the United States involved in Afghanistan because no president wanted to take the heat for what might look like a defeat if the Taliban returned after we withdrew. Now President Biden will take the political hit for an actual defeat; his eviction moratorium did not apply to Kabul. Americans are left with the sense that our sacrifices in Afghanistan were for nothing.
Defeat in Afghanistan weakens America’s global position and strengthens the hands of countries seeking to diminish U.S. influence in the developing world. It renews the hard lesson spoken of by Prince Sirik Matak, the Cambodian leader abandoned to the Khmer Rouge killing fields, who wrote that he “only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”
It emboldens radical movements to strike while the global superpower is weak. We saw this after Vietnam, when communists assumed control of a series of countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And we saw it after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which inspired the same generation of Islamic radicals who reoccupied Kabul last weekend.
Paul Scharre:US waited too long to withdraw from Afghanistan
President Biden said we need to focus on “today’s threats, not the threats of yesterday.” But unfortunately, yesterday’s threats may be returning. The Taliban have never renounced their ties to al Qaida, and it is possible that Afghanistan could once again become a central node in a global terrorist network that threatens the United States, its allies, and its interests. There is no reason to believe that violent Muslim radicals have changed their objectives or their determination to punish the United States – indeed now they have 20 more years-worth of reasons. Thus it is imperative to maintain focus on Afghanistan and not to overlook the same type of threatening developments that we ignored in the 1990s to our peril.
The president promised that if these new threats emerge, the United States will be prepared to deal with them. And in December 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden stated, “The Taliban, per se, is not our enemy.” Now he will find out whether that assessment was right.