Biden’s Afghanistan

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. Professor Isaac’s research is in the area of political theory.

Biden’s Afghanistan Speech Would Have Been Terrific Two Months Ago, Before Instead of After the Botched Withdrawal

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, neocon-turned never Trumper and Biden supporter, put it exactly right: “Biden gave the best possible defense of his Afghanistan withdrawal.”

Biden’s challenge in Afghanistan has been unenviable. He had long been a critic of “nation-building” there; a strong consensus had emerged among national security experts and the mass public that further U.S. military involvement was a recipe for failure, and that withdrawal of troops was necessary; facts on the ground further confirmed this judgment; and the commitment to withdraw, and the drawdown itself, was initiated by Trump, and was something of a fait accompli for Biden. 

Biden’s speech was a powerful explanation of the foreign policy and domestic political reasons why he remains steadfastly committed to his announced timetable for withdrawal and has no second thoughts or regrets about the decisions he has made in recent months, to announce a September deadline and to further drawdown troops.

Biden laid the blame for the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe at the feet of Afghanistan’s leaders who, he not unreasonably noted, had been politically inept and corrupt, had failed to generate significant popular support, and indeed cut and ran at the first sign of real trouble.

All of these comments ring true, and they were delivered in a brilliantly-crafted speech that may well prove to be a highly successful public relations move.

At the same time, whether or not the speech serves Biden’s political purposes, it was poorly timed, and suffered from at least two huge flaws that should deeply trouble anyone not enthralled by the most cynical version of realpolitik.

First, it really did not explain either how/why the actual evacuation currently underway was so badly botched, or how Biden will now make good on his vague promise to rescue the many people still at risk, especially the thousands of Afghan civilians with Taliban targets on the backs. In other words, the speech made clear that Biden views the current situation through a purely instrumental-strategic and non-moral lens, and does not really care very much about anyone on the ground except American citizens and those of our NATO allies. This sucks.

Second, the speech, designed to explain that the U.S. will no longer fight in Afghanistan, concluded with a promise that was in fact a threat: that if the thousands of troops Biden has just redeployed for the purpose of evacuating Americans and some others are attacked by Taliban forces, then these U.S. troops will fight and fight hard, and deliver severe military punishment.

Think about this. Because Biden strongly supported an expeditious withdrawal from Afghanistan, he drew down U.S. forces precipitously and then, when chaos ensued, he was forced to redeploy thousands more troops, which he is now using to issue military threats.

Is there really reason to think that the Taliban will comply with Biden’s demand that the U.S. evacuation proceed unhindered? And what if Taliban leaders, or more likely Taliban troops operating in a chaotic situation, do not comply? What then? In that event, Biden’s botched evacuation will have led to . . . the escalation of conflict in which U.S. troops may find themselves fighting a war with the Taliban in the streets of Kabul.

Many of my liberal and left friends are loathe to criticize Biden on this, because they rightly agree with the commitment to military withdrawal, because they prefer to blame Trump—and there can never be enough blame for Trump!–and because they are willing to accept the basic Biden rationale: “we must leave now, because whether in a year or five years, we cannot accomplish anything good.”

But everything here hinges on what we mean by “now.”

And it is clear that for Biden, “now” means not “this year,” or “by the Fall,” but literally now.

But what is also clear is that now the U.S. is in the middle of a huge mess that was caused by the Biden administration’s botched execution of a very poorly planned decision to be gone by September 11. And nothing Biden said in his speech obviates the fact that this situation, now, is a disaster for which only Biden can be held responsible.

While the newly deployed U.S. troops are now taking charge of the Kabul airport and its air traffic control, even this control of this circumscribed territory is precarious.

Meanwhile thousands of U.S. citizens remain stranded in Kabul, and elsewhere, unable to get to the airport for evacuation, along with the thousands of other citizens of U.S. NATO allies for whom the U.S. is responsible.

And meanwhile many scores of thousands of Afghani individuals, and their families, who have cooperated with the decades-long U.S. occupation—interpreters and translators, office workers, journalists, human rights activists, and educators—are also stuck, in Kabul or in other cities, unable to make it to the Kabul airport, ineligible for evacuation anyway, and fearing reprisals and even death at the hands of the Taliban.

It begs credulity to believe that this disaster was unavoidable.

And it is really stupid to insist that anyone who is sickened by this situation, and raises questions about it, is a supporter of continued and eternal U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Alternative methods for effecting a just and orderly withdrawal were possible, as alternatives are always possible. And the way that Biden and his team managed these choices, at the margins, is a proper basis for judging them, and holding them responsible.

It is clear that the visa applications of scores of thousands of U.S.-affiliated translators and others have been languishing in the U.S. bureaucracy for many months, and that the Biden administration has failed to expedite the rapid evacuation of all of these people in advance of a withdrawal.

It is equally clear that even at the airport there is chaos, because there was insufficient planning for the rapidity with which the Afghan government and military would fold and the Taliban would seize control of the entire country.

And, finally, it is clear that much of this could and should have been better understood, and planned for. (Back in May, my colleagues Dipali Mukhopadhyay and Helen M. Kinsella published a terrific piece on “A Just Exit From Afghanistan.”)

What if Biden had given his fine speech two months ago instead of now, in the face of an avoidable catastrophe?

What if he explained then why he was inalterably committed to a Fall withdrawal, and also explained that instead of further winnowing the roughly 3000 troops deployed, he was doubling this force, with the sole purpose of providing a safe corridor through which all eligible people—U.S. citizens, NATO nationals, Afghani allies with just cause—could make their way to the Kabul airport for an orderly evacuation over the course of many weeks?

What if he stated clearly, to all concerned, especially the Taliban and the Afghan “government,” that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be ended by sometime in the Fall, but not until all personnel had been evacuated in a fair and orderly way?

What if?

I have never had enthusiasm for Joe Biden. But I strongly supported him last year, and strongly support him still, because on balance he is decent—though his holier than thou schtick is beginning to wear thin–because many of his policy goals are worth supporting, and because he is not Trump, and only his political success can keep us from Trumpist victories in 2022 and 2024.

That support is unwavering, for now. And my opposition to Trumpism is equally unwavering, now and forever.

And nothing I have written above commits me to supporting imperialist adventures or to supporting the absurd effort of right-wingers like Tom Cotton, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy to cynically attack Biden and to promote Trump.

Lots of bullshit about Biden and Afghanistan will be uttered by lots of people in the days and weeks to come. But that has nothing to do with the argument I am making here.

Biden has disastrously botched his withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I fear the human, moral, and even political consequences of this disaster. Biden did not create this horrible situation. But his way of “getting out” has made things worse. 

Some, like Jennifer Rubin, still hold out hope that Biden can “rescue” the situation on the ground, and “do right” by Afghans, and finalize the U.S. withdrawal in a more honorable, humane, and just way.


But right now there is only chaos and catastrophe.

And, alas, this chaos and catastrophe is on Biden. 

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