President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Afganistan is so disastrous that now, perhaps, we can focus on what the decision tells us about Joe Biden. Indeed, the most important thing about the decision may be what it tells us about Joe Biden, about his stubbornness, the extent to which his decisions may be affected by his emotions, and the degree to which domestic politics and public opinion may shape those decisions.
For keen insight into Biden’s thinking–you must read between the lines, as a journalist like David Ignatius obviously needs to keep his lines of communication to Biden and his administrarion open.
David Ignatius, “History will cast a shadow over Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Washington Post, April 13, 2021 (8:06 p.m. EDT).
The Decision Process
For an authoritative account of Biden’s past thinking and how he reached thevdecision to withdraw all American military forces from Afghanistan, see
Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, “Debating Exit From Afghanistan, Biden Rejected Generals’ Views
Over two decades of war, the Pentagon had fended off the political instincts of elected leaders frustrated with the grind of Afghanistan; But President Biden refused to be persuaded,” Nrw York Times, April 17, 2021.
The wisdom of the decision
For a big-picture view of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan since 2001, see,
Max Fisher, “The Contradiction That Doomed America’s Mission in Afghanistan; How a series of fateful choices and lofty ambitions put Taliban defeat at odds with American victory, New York Times, April 16, 2021.
For cogent critiques of the decision, see
1) H.R. McMasters with Fareed Zacharia, “On GPS: H.R. McMaster on Afghanistan, MSN, here?
2) Max Boot, “President Biden should have followed Vice President Biden’s advice on Afghanistan,” Washington Post, April 19, 2021 (1:40 a.m. EDT).
3) Michael Gerson, “Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a terrible risk, Washington Post, April 19, 2021 (5:04 p.m. EDT).
For an insightful view of what the withdrawal decision means in terms of betraying the Afghans who have trusted us and made common cause with the Americans for 20 years, see
Pamela Constable, “If the Taliban take power again, will Afghans have died in vain? The flawed U.S. presence lifted expectations about what kind of society they could have,” Washington Post, April 16, 2021 (9:28 EDT).
Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.
Bret Stephens, “Abandoning Afghanistan Is a Historic Mistake; Leaving proves Osama bin Laden right: Eventually, America cuts and runs,” New York Times, April 19, 2021.
There are, of course, a number of opinion pieces by columnists and others who support Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Hinted at but left unsaid is the fact that U.S. clandestine operatives, including in particular those from the CIA, are likely to remain in the country.
Yet, with some exceptions, the columnists who support Biden’s withdrawal decision tend ro be columnists or other writers without deep foreign policy expertise, or deep familiarity with Afghanistan and the history of U.S. policy toward that country since 2001.
The U.S. has followed a wide variety of flawed policies in Afghanistan, which led military historian Thomas Ricks to entitle his 2007 book on the subject Fiasco.
The irony here is that the U.S. military posture in Afghanistan is the one Vice-president Joe Biden argued for, unsuccessfully, in 2009.
This writer spent two months in Kabul in 2005 leading the start-up of the Justice Sector Support Program (JSSP), which involved a team of six lawyers and one prison expert, each of whom advised a different ministry or institution involved in the criminal justice system. The program had the goal of providing advice and guidance to Afghan institutions in order to reform the system to reflect democratic values and respect for human rights.
Since 2005, I have followed developments in Afghanistan closely. (See the articles on Afghanistan published in The Trenchant Observer)
In my view, the greatest defect in U.S. policy has been its pursuit of the goal of withdrawing from the country. President Trump’s surrender and withdrawal agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, was a craven recognition of the fact that all the Trump administration wanted to do was to get out of the country.
The negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar sought to bypass the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan which the U.S. and NATO had worked to strengthen for almost 20 years.
Led by the former Republican-appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, whose motives were at least open to doubt as he had reportedly considered running for the Presidency of Afghanistan, the Doha negotiations appeared to serve only Donald Trump’s interest in “ending” the conflict so that he could score points in the 2020 presiential election.
In reaching his decision to withdraw all American troops, against the reportedly unanimous or near-unanimous advice of his military advisors, Joe Biden didn’t even replace Khalilzad with his own leader of the negotiations. He seems to have just wanted to get out of Afghanistan, like Trump. There is no persuasive evidence that he conducted a fundamental-level policy review of U.S. policy and options before deciding to simply follow Trump’s path of surrender, with no preconditions.
Biden appears to have given little weight to broader considerations in reaching his decision. First, the shameful admission of defeat and withdrawal did little to reassure other allies that the United States would stand by them in the crunch. Just as Donald Trump had thrown U.S. Kurdish allies under the bus in reaching an accomodatiin on Syria with Tayib Erdogan of Turkey, Biden demonstrated that the U.S. was willing to throw its Afghan allies and supporters of the democratic project under the bus, if the U.S. unilaterally determined it was in its strategic (or domestic political) interests to do so.
Strategically, the United States unilaterally surrended its bases and position in Afghanistan, despite the fact that it borders on Russia, a fact of strategic significance, particularly at a moment when Russia has massed some 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine and threatens to invade it.
Potentially of even greater significance, at least in the longer term, is the risk that surrendering to the Taliban may lead to the country once again becoming a haven for Islamic fundamentalists with global ambitions, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The great risk and the great threat is that like-minded fundamentalists in Pakistan (of whom there are many) might seize control of that country’s government and its nuclear weapons. Such a development would pose a enormous threat to Western interests, and to India in particular.
The decision to surrender to the Taliban and abandon our Afghan allies and supporters is among the most craven and dastardly decisions in U.S. military and foreign policy history. One searches in history for a decision of such dishonorable magnitude.
The comparison that comes to mind is the agreement by Neville Chamberlain of England and Ėdouard Daladier of France with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgarten in October, 1938. The agreement, known as tge Munich Pact, has become synonymous with betrayal and appeasement
That will be Joe Biden’s legacy, unless he changes course, which seems unlikely.