Afghanistan: Unforced Errors and Righteous Indignation

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, President Joe Biden gave a speech lauding the “extraordinary success” of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. In this speech, he offered a forceful rebuke of widespread bipartisan criticism over his handling of the withdrawal, arguing that exiting the 20-year war in a “more orderly manner” was simply impossible. Accusing his critics of desiring a forever war, and yet again making little mention of a mounting list of unforced errors and logistical concerns, the President’s speech radiated a unique brand of righteous indignation.

Once again, President Biden offered us an empty speech that did not serve to inspire confidence in the American people, reassure the millions suffering in Afghanistan or defend our credibility abroad. Instead, he offered words only to defend himself.

Joe Biden, throughout the collapse of Afghanistan, has made himself scarce to the American people. The already unusually reclusive President had spent nearly a full week vacationing at Camp David and his residence in Wilmington, Del. as the Taliban takeover unfolded. Unsurprisingly, Biden has regularly refused to take questions as the situation deteriorated, and instead remained noticeably absent, as did White House Speaker Jen Psaki and the ever elusive Vice President Kamala Harris. On the rare instance he did speak, he was uncompromising in one thing and one thing only: that he did nothing wrong.

President Biden points to the evacuation of just over one hundred thousand people since Aug. 1 as proof of the mission’s success. Of course, given that the United States deliberately forwent evacuations until the Taliban completely swept through Afghanistan and captured Kabul, this point is akin to the captain of the Titanic boasting about the number of lifeboats on deck. Despite having added more than six months to the exit originally planned by former President Donald Trump, Biden refused to initiate evacuations earlier, fearing that taking out evacuees before the war’s end could cause a “crisis of confidence” and claiming that “some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier.”

President Biden’s emphasis on “confidence” is part of a broader trend of him misrepresenting the deteriorating conditions of Afghanistan, as was the case in an unearthed transcript of the last call between him and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani before the latter fled the country. In the call, which was leaked to Reuters, President Biden pressured his Afghan counterpart to “change perception” of the Afghan resistance to the Taliban. Biden states that the broader world community believes “things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban” and that “there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”

The execution of the withdrawal was further marred by the fact that the U.S. military needlessly abandoned the nearby Bagram Airfield, cutting its power and slipping away into the night without notifying the Afghan government, forcing all evacuees through a bottleneck in the center of Kabul. The scene at the Hamid Karzai airport, with a slashed timescale and insufficient infrastructure to guarantee the safety or eventual exit of the many evacuees, was drowned in chaos. With thousands of people flooding the runway, falling to their deaths clinging to airplanes, and mothers throwing their children over barbed wire fences, the terror and desperation of the Afghan people was painfully evident. The situation was worsened even further by the United States having to outsource all security beyond the perimeter of the airport to the Taliban. Widespread accounts emerged reporting on members of the Taliban beating Afghan and American citizens, and barring many from entering the airport. On top of granting them almost total control outside the airport, the United States provided them a list of all Afghans attempting to leave the country who had aided the Americans throughout the war — something many critics have dubbed a “kill list.” The United States’ entire evacuation strategy was predicated upon mutual trust with a terrorist insurgency with whom we had been fighting for twenty years.

Amidst the uncontrollable scene at the airport, ISIS-K unleashed a suicide bombing attack that left 169 civilians and 13 U.S. service members dead. President Biden, at the dignified transfer of the 13 military personnel, was blasted by three Gold Star families for repeatedly checking his watch during the ceremony. One mother of a fallen marine, Shana Chappell, even accused President Biden in an Instagram post of rolling his eyes at her and walking away after she said she blamed him for her son’s death in a private meeting.

After repeated unforced errors, as well as unnecessary chaos and deaths, the Pentagon estimates that as many as 250 American citizens may have been left behind.

But let’s forget for a moment the disastrous evacuation; let’s look at the scene that we left in our wake. Even if we are to accept the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a foregone conclusion as President Biden claims it was, the Taliban is now stronger and more emboldened than when we first fought them in 2001. During the sloppy withdrawal process, the United States abandoned billions of dollars worth of armaments. Videos have emerged of the Taliban walking across lines of armored vehicles, opening crates full of weapons, and waltzing into abandoned bases and hangars full of equipment. These insurgents rode into Kabul on the backs of Toyotas, and they rode out in Humvees.

Afghanistan experienced some spark of hope at the apparent resurgence of the Northern Alliance, a resistance group that fought the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 back when they initially occupied Afghanistan. Unfortunately, faced with American guns, steel and technology being used against them, they hold only one last dwindling pocket of resistance in the mountains of the Panjshir province.

In the wake of this disaster, our NATO allies expressed nothing but a sense of betrayal. In a wholly unprecedented decision, the British Parliament held Joe Biden in contempt, the first time they have ever done this to a U.S. President since the United Kingdom first recognized the United States in 1783. One unnamed cabinet minister, speaking with British media outlet The Times, was reported as saying “The US remains by far and away our most important ally, but we are not Washington’s most important ally by some stretch.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was refused communication with Biden for 36 hours following the fall of Kabul, has refrained from attacking him directly, however, has reportedly described him as “lightweight and inward-looking” in private and taken to calling him “Sleepy Joe,” according to The Sunday Times.

The response is no better among the rest of our allies. Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, had previously predicted Biden to be the bastion of “a partnership based on cooperation & rational thinking,” but didn’t mince his words in expressing his disappointment with the withdrawal. “I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration. This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.”

Meanwhile, America’s geopolitical rivals have seized on a newly perceived weakness of the United States. For example, The Global Times, a Chinese state-run media outlet, released an editorial on Aug. 16 calling into question America’s ability and willingness to protect its allies — namely Taiwan, whom China has long expressed an interest in absorbing into their territory. “Once a war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help.”

Despite President Biden attempting to gaslight his critics as desiring a forever war, an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan at its early onset. 73 percent of the American public, including 53 percent of Republicans, supported the exit according to a poll conducted by The Hill in late April. And despite this bipartisan support of an exit, there is a likewise bipartisan bloc that criticizes its execution, with only 27 percent of the American public rating Biden’s handling of Afghanistan as good or excellent, according to a Pew study conducted in late August. Biden, offering no defense for these concerns, has opted instead to castigate a hawkish ideological minority, and flagrantly ignore all others as his approval rating continues to slide, recently cratering at 43 percent according to a Marist poll released Sept. 2.

President Biden, reeling from the aftermath, appears to be undecided as to whether to steal credit from former President Trump for the idea of the withdrawal, or scapegoat him for how poorly it was ultimately executed. One second he will champion the exit as one of his greatest achievements, with “the buck stops with me” essentially becoming the new slogan of his administration. The next second, he will make himself seem powerless in the effort, blaming his predecessor’s deal despite having upended countless other Trump-era projects and foreign policy decisions with little hesitation thus far. Whatever excuse he leans on next, there is only one thing that we know for certain: Afghanistan will forever be a stain on the legacy of Joe Biden.