If Donald Trump were presiding over the debacle in Afghanistan, the US foreign policy establishment would be loudly condemning the irresponsibility and immorality of American strategy. Since it is Joe Biden in the White House there is instead, largely, an embarrassed silence.
It is true that Trump set the US on the path out of Afghanistan and began the delusional peace talks with the Taliban that have gone nowhere. But rather than reverse the withdrawal of troops, Biden accelerated it.
The horrific results are unfolding on the ground in Afghanistan, as the Taliban take city after city. The final collapse of the government looks inevitable. It may come just in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that originally led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Joe Biden’s credibility has been shredded in Afghanistan
Earlier this week, Biden was channelling Edith Piaf, claiming he had no regrets about pulling the rug out from under the Afghan government. Last month, the president was still insisting that the “likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”. Who knows what he will be saying next month? And, frankly, who cares? On Afghanistan, Biden’s credibility is now shot.
The broader strategic question is what the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan will do for US credibility around the world. Discussing the situation there as a question of high global politics feels distasteful while a tragedy unfolds on the ground. But, beyond simple war-weariness, Biden’s principal justification for the Afghan withdrawal was strategic. In recent remarks, he argued that the US cannot “remain tethered” to policies created in response “to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today.” The first threat that Biden identified was “the strategic competition with China”.
So how does America’s defeat in Afghanistan — in reality, a defeat for the entire western alliance — play into the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing?
The US failure makes it much harder for Biden to push his core message that “America is back”. By contrast, it fits perfectly with two key messages pushed by the Chinese (and Russian) governments. First, that US power is in decline. Second, that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.
If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban, there will be a question mark over whether America would really be willing to go to war with China or Russia. Yet America’s global network of alliances is based on the idea that, in the last resort, US troops would indeed be deployed to defend their allies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.
China is already the dominant economic power in east Asia. But most Asian democracies look to the US as their main security partner. So it is very helpful to Beijing if Washington’s credibility is undermined. Of course, the situations and stakes in Taiwan or the South China Sea are different from those in Afghanistan. But events there will still resonate around the world.
The direct consequences for Beijing of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which borders China, will be less welcome. The Chinese regime has adopted policies of mass internment and repression in Muslim-majority Xinjiang. The idea of the Uyghurs receiving support from a fundamentalist Taliban government will raise concerns in Beijing. So will the potential threat of terrorist bases in Afghanistan.
In time, China might face a classical superpower’s dilemma. Is it better to intervene militarily in turbulent Afghanistan, or to leave the country to its own devices? As Andrew Small of the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, Chinese commentary on Afghanistan is already replete with references to the country as the “graveyard of empires”.
In Washington, the parallel that will be uppermost in the minds of policymakers is Vietnam. There are already reports that America is trying to persuade the Taliban not to storm the US embassy in Kabul in order to avoid a repetition of the scenes when Saigon fell in 1975. Last month, Biden insisted that the “Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability.” He may come to regret those words.
The Americans know, however, that if they decide to pull out the last remnants of the US presence in Kabul, they will be in effect signing the death warrant of the Afghan government. The collapse in morale which has already led to successive defeats for the Afghan army across the country would become irreversible. But, in truth, the situation already looks all but irrecoverable.
Unlike the Afghan government, however, the US administration has a few straws of hope to cling to. The end of the Vietnam war was indeed a debacle. Many questioned American power in its aftermath. But within fourteen years of the fall of Saigon, the cold war was over, and the west had won.
In the end, the struggle between the American and Soviet systems turned not on events in Vietnam but on the relative strengths of the two countries’ domestic economies and political systems. The current rivalry between the US and China may be determined in the same way. But that abstract thought is little comfort to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan.
Joe Biden Can’t Escape Fallout From Afghanistan
I can’t speak to the foreign-policy implications of the collapse of government forces in Afghanistan, or the consequences for the Afghan people. I can talk a little about what’s at stake for President Joe Biden.
To begin with: It’s very unlikely that there will be any direct public-opinion effect, and if there is it will almost certainly be short-lived. It’s even less likely that the Taliban’s resurgence will have any effect on the 2022 midterms, let alone the 2024 presidential election. Republicans may try to make “Who lost Afghanistan?” an election theme, but there’s virtually no evidence that voters care about such things. Normally, the only thing in foreign policy and national security that seems to have an effect is when troops die in combat.
This doesn’t mean that Biden has nothing at stake. A president’s reputation affects how much influence he or she has. Biden brought some advantages with him to the White House in this regard; his experience, in the Senate and as vice president, almost certainly meant that most people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — something that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump would have to (and often did not) earn.
The situation in Afghanistan puts Biden’s reputation for foreign-policy expertise at risk. Indeed, it’s not just the facts on the ground there that matter. Biden has consistently set expectations high, and has done very little to make a public case that the Afghan government’s collapse was a risk worth taking. Given the strong chances that things would work out as they have, that seems like a real mistake.
There’s more than that. One of the ways that presidents gain influence is by earning a reputation as a winner, and one of the ways they do that is, well, by having a string of wins. In some ways this is simple. The more people Biden deals with — in the executive branch, in Congress, in state and local governments, in the private sector, and more — think of Afghanistan as a fiasco, the less likely they are to assume that Biden will win future battles. And that will make them less likely to act accordingly.
That said, there were plenty of downside risks to other policy options as well. That Biden may have sold his choices badly matters, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t the least-bad decisions available. Indeed, if Biden was committed to pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, it may be better for him to get it over with early in his presidency — and, to be blunt, perhaps he’s better off having the government fall now, if it had to happen at some point.
All of this may sound cynical. But the job that Biden signed up for, as the political scientist Richard Neustadt explained long ago, requires a certain amount of cold calculation — specifically, about how to help his own political situation and expand his influence. Otherwise, the president can only fall back on the formal powers of the office, which aren’t sufficient to get very much done. That’s bad for the president, and also for the nation.
Rush of troops to Kabul tests Biden’s withdrawal deadline
The last-minute decision to send 3,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help partially evacuate the U.S. Embassy is calling into question whether President Joe Biden will meet his Aug. 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces. The vanguard of a Marine contingent arrived in Kabul on Friday and most of the rest of the 3,000 are due by Sunday.
Officials have stressed that the newly arriving troops’ mission is limited to assisting the airlift of embassy personnel and Afghan allies, and they expect to complete it by month’s end. But they might have to stay longer if the embassy is threatened by a Taliban takeover of Kabul by then. On Friday the Taliban seemed nearly within reach of contesting the capital.
“Clearly from their actions, it appears as if they are trying to get Kabul isolated,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, referring to the Taliban’s speedy and efficient takedown of major provincial capitals across the country in recent days.
Biden had given the Pentagon until Aug. 31 to complete the withdrawal of the 2,500 to 3,000 troops that were in Afghanistan when he announced in April that he was ending U.S. involvement in the war. That number has dropped to just under 1,000, and all but about 650 are scheduled to be gone by the end of the month; the 650 are to remain to help protect the U.S. diplomatic presence, including with aircraft and defensive weapons at Kabul airport.
But Thursday’s decision to dispatch 3,000 fresh troops to the airport adds a new twist to the U.S. withdrawal. There is no discussion of rejoining the war, but the number of troops needed for security will depend on decisions about keeping the embassy open and the extent of a Taliban threat to the capital in coming days.
Having the Aug. 31 deadline pass with thousands of U.S. troops in the country would be awkward for Biden given his insistence on ending the 20-year U.S. war by that date. Republicans have already criticized the withdrawal as a mistake and ill-planned, though there’s little political appetite by either party to send fresh troops to fight the Taliban.
Kirby declined to discuss any assessment of whether the Taliban are likely soon to converge on Kabul, but the urgent movement of extra U.S. troops into Afghanistan to assist the embassy drawdown is clear evidence of Washington’s worry that after the rapid fall of major cities this week with relatively little Afghan government resistance, Kabul is endangered.
Kirby reiterated the Biden administration’s assertion that Afghan security forces have tangible advantages over the insurgents, including a viable air force and superior numbers. The statement serves to highlight the fact that what the Afghan forces lack is motivation to fight in a circumstance where the Taliban seem to have decisive momentum.
Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, said in an interview the announcement that 3,000 U.S. troops are heading to Kabul to help pull out American diplomats and embassy staff likely made Afghan morale even worse.
“The message that sent to Afghans is: ‘The city of Kabul is going to fall so fast that we can’t organize an orderly withdrawal from the embassy,’” Biddle said. This suggests to Afghans that the Americans see little future for the government and that “this place could be toast within hours.”
Kirby said lead “elements” of a Marine battalion arrived in Kabul on Friday as the U.S. speeds up evacuation flights for some American diplomats and thousands of Afghans. The rest of that battalion and two others are due in coming days.
The Pentagon also was moving an additional 4,500 to 5,000 troops to bases in the Gulf countries of Qatar and Kuwait, including 1,000 to Qatar to speed up visa processing for Afghan translators and others who fear retribution from the Taliban for their past work with Americans, and their family members.
The remainder — 3,500 to 4,000 troops from a combat brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina — were preparing Friday to depart for Kuwait “in very short order.” Kirby said the combat troops would be a reserve force on standby for whatever mission might be required in Kabul.
The temporary buildup of troops for U.S. evacuations highlights the stunning pace of the Taliban takeover of much of the country.
Friday’s latest significant blow was the Taliban capture of the capital of Helmand province, where American, British and other allied NATO forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in the past 20 years. Hundreds of Western troops died there during the course of the war, in fighting that often succeeded in knocking back Taliban fighters locally, only to have the Taliban move back in when a Western unit rotated out.
The State Department said the embassy in Kabul will remain partially staffed and functioning, but Thursday’s decision to evacuate a significant number of embassy staff and bring in the thousands of additional U.S. troops is a sign of waning confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to hold off the Taliban surge. The Biden administration has not ruled out a full embassy evacuation or possibly relocating embassy operations to the Kabul airport.
There are a little over 4,000 personnel still at the embassy; the State Department has not said how many are being pulled out in the next two weeks.
The Biden administration warned Taliban officials directly that the U.S. would respond if the Taliban attacked Americans during the stepped-up deployments and evacuations.
Americans are preparing a military base abroad to receive and house large numbers of those Afghan translators and others as their visa applications are processed. The Biden administration has not identified the base, but earlier was talking with both Kuwait and Qatar about using U.S. bases there for the temporary relocations. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. soon will have evacuation planes flying out daily, for those Afghan translators and others who manage to reach the Kabul airport despite the fighting.
US keeping distance as Afghan forces face Taliban rout
Afghan government forces are collapsing even faster than U.S. military leaders thought possible just a few months ago when President Joe Biden ordered a full withdrawal. But there’s little appetite at the White House, the Pentagon or among the American public for trying to stop the rout and it probably is too late to do so.
Biden has made clear he has no intention of reversing the decision he made last spring, even as the outcome seems to point toward a Taliban takeover. With most U.S. troops now gone and the Taliban accelerating their battlefield gains, American military leaders are not pressing him to change his mind. They know that the only significant option would be for the president to restart the war he already decided to end.
The Taliban, who ruled the country from 1996 until U.S. forces invaded after the 9/11 attacks, captured three more provincial capitals Wednesday and another two on Thursday, the 10th and 11th the insurgents have taken in a weeklong sweep that has given them effective control of about two-thirds of the country. The insurgents have no air force and are outnumbered by U.S.-trained Afghan defense forces, but they have captured territory, including the country’s third-largest city, Herat, with stunning speed.
In a new warning to Americans in Afghanistan, the second it has issued since Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Thursday again urged U.S. citizens to leave immediately. The advisory was released amid increasing discussions in Washington about further reducing already limited staff at the embassy.
John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the Afghans still have time to save themselves from final defeat.
“No potential outcome has to be inevitable, including the fall of Kabul,” Kirby told reporters. “It doesn’t have to be that way. It really depends on what kind of political and military leadership the Afghans can muster to turn this around.”
Biden made a similar point a day earlier, telling reporters that U.S. troops had done all they could over the past 20 years to assist the Afghans.
“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” he said.
The United States continues to support the Afghan military with limited airstrikes, but those have not made a strategic difference thus far and are scheduled to end when the U.S. formally ends its role in the war on Aug. 31. Biden could continue airstrikes beyond that date, but given his firm stance on ending the war, that seems unlikely.
“My suspicion, my strong suspicion, is that the 31st of August timeline’s going to hold,” said Carter Malkasian, who advised U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan and Washington.
Senior U.S. military officials had cautioned Biden that a full U.S. withdrawal could lead to a Taliban takeover, but the president decided in April that continuing the war was a waste. He said Tuesday that his decision holds, even amid talk that the Taliban could soon be within reach of Kabul, threatening the security of U.S. and other foreign diplomats.
The most recent American military assessment, taking into account the Taliban’s latest gains, says Kabul could be under insurgent pressure by September and that the country could fall entirely to Taliban control within a couple of months, according to a defense official who discussed the internal analysis Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
Officials said there has been no decision or order for an evacuation of American diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan. But one official said it is now time for serious conversations about whether the U.S. military should begin to move assets into the region to be ready in case the State Department calls for a sudden evacuation.
Kirby declined to discuss any evacuation planning, but one congressional official said a recent National Security Council meeting had discussed preliminary planning for a potential evacuation of the U.S. Embassy but came to no conclusions.
Any such plan would involve identifying U.S. troops, aircraft and other assets that may have to operate from within Afghanistan or nearby areas. The U.S. already has warships in the region, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and the USS Iwo Jima amphibious ready group with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard.
Military officials watching the deteriorating situation said that so far the Taliban haven’t taken steps to threaten Kabul. But it isn’t clear if the Taliban will wait until they have gained control of the bulk of the country before attempting to seize the capital.
Military commanders have long warned that it would be a significant challenge for the Afghan military to hold off the Taliban through the end of the year. In early May, shortly after Biden announced his withdrawal decision, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he foresaw “some really dramatic, bad possible outcomes” in a worst-case scenario. He held out hope that the government would unify and hold off the Taliban, and said the outcome could clarify by the end of the summer.
The security of the U.S. diplomatic corps has been talked about for months, even before the Taliban’s battlefield blitz. The military has long had various planning options for evacuating personnel from Afghanistan. Those options would largely be determined by the White House and the State Department.
A key component of the options would be whether the U.S. military would have unfettered access to the Kabul international airport, allowing personnel to be flown systematically out of the capital. In a grimmer environment, American forces might have to fight their way in and out if the Taliban have infiltrated the city.
The U.S. also would have to determine who would be evacuated: just American embassy personnel and the U.S. military, or also other embassies, American citizens, and Afghans who worked with the U.S. In that last category are former interpreters and those who face retaliation from the Taliban. The U.S. has already started pulling out hundreds of those Afghans who assisted troops during the war.
Senior defense leaders have been talking and meeting daily, laying out their grim assessments of the security situation in Afghanistan. Officials pointed to the fall of Baghlan Province as a worrisome bellwether, because it provides the Taliban with a base and route to Kabul from the north.
AS AFGHANISTAN UNRAVELS, BIDEN’S FOREIGN POLICY AGENDA FACES ITS FIRST REAL TEST
For two decades, the War in Afghanistan has played out as a low hum in the background of American life: always there, but easy for much of the population, and its political leaders, to look past. But with the country’s quick descent into chaos after the United States pull-out, the conflict has come roaring back onto front pages. The “forgotten war,” as it’s frequently called, can no longer be ignored.
The possibility—perhaps likelihood—that the Taliban could seize control of Afghanistan after U.S. forces left was evident last month when Joe Biden announced his decision. But the rate of the country’s collapse has nevertheless been jarring. Government forces, in which Biden had expressed confidence, are losing control of the country, and the Taliban, which the president has acknowledged is at its “strongest” point in decades, is making rapid gains. Its insurgents have taken more than a dozen provincial capitals, including Kandahar, the second-largest city in the country, in a matter of days. Morale among Afghan security forces is plummeting, with CNN reporting that some soldiers have simply abandoned their posts and changed into civilian clothes. In a reflection of the grim state of affairs, the U.S. on Thursday hurried 3,000 troops to the country to partially evacuate its embassy in Kabul.
Officials insist that America is maintaining a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. “This is not a wholesale withdrawal,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “What this is is a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint.” But the extraordinary move underscores the efficiency with which the Taliban has overrun the country, and the apparent inability of government forces to hold the line. “This is a group that up until just a few months ago was an underground insurgency,” Ward reported Friday morning. “And now, it holds a vast amount of territory on the ground, and because that’s happened so quickly, you do have to ask the question about how quickly could Kabul fall.”
The rapidly unraveling situation has drawn dire comparisons in the media: In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser quoted an expert who wondered whether this was “going to be Biden’s Rwanda,” referring to the genocide that ravaged the east African nation in the 1990s. Several observers likened the situation to the fall of Saigon. Critics of the planned withdrawal fumed at Biden, all but saying told you so. “President Biden’s strategy has turned an imperfect but stable situation into a major embarrassment and a global emergency in a matter of weeks,” Mitch McConnell said. “[Biden] is finding that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it.”
It’s hard to put it all on Biden. A war that drags out over two decades and four presidencies is not lost overnight, and there were decisions at other points in the conflict that could have averted the situation currently unfolding.
But it is equally hard to overstate the scale of the crisis that has gripped the country in recent days, one with grave implications for residents of the destabilized nation. “[I’m] counting down my last times in this world,” one resident of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, told NBC News. Biden, for his part, has made clear that he believes the U.S. cannot be permanently responsible for maintaining order, and that it’s up to the Afghan government to “fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” as he put it earlier this week. According to Axios, the deteriorating conditions on the ground have not altered his position.
Ending America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, as Biden’s two immediate predecessors each vowed to do, was always going to be messy. But officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley, seemed unprepared for just how bad things could get—and how quickly. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you’ll see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” Biden said earlier this summer, rejecting comparisons to the end of the Vietnam War. “I do not see that unfolding,” Milley said in June. “I may be wrong, who knows, you can’t predict the future, but I don’t see Saigon 1975 in Afghanistan. The Taliban just aren’t the North Vietnamese army. It’s not that kind of situation.”