WHEN AN American president speaks, you listen, whether or not you like the US, and Biden’s speech of August 16 has been closely scrutinised. He deplored the “gut-wrenching” scenes at Kabul airport, and he accepted what he called his “share of responsibility” for current and future events.
The phrase “share of responsibility” meant he wasn’t taking all the blame. (Well, why should he?) He had “inherited a deal” negotiated by Donald Trump with the Taliban. The US had “spent over a trillion dollars” in Afghanistan (the actual figure is smaller, I’m told, but still humongous), had done all it could to train and support the Afghan forces, had given them “every chance to determine their own future,” but “could not provide them (with) the will to fight for that future…It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own forces would not.”
The US mission in Afghanistan “was never supposed to have been nation-building (or creating) a unified, centralised democracy. Our only vital interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.” That was why, he continued, he had “opposed the surge” suggested in 2009 when he was Barack Obama’s vice-president. Keeping US troops fighting “in another country’s civil war…is not in our national security interest.” He stood firmly behind his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan: it was “the right one for America.”
What to say about the above? First, it’s true that Afghan forces fled as the Taliban approached; it wasn’t so much flight as stampede (their lily-livered president, Ashraf Ghani, quickly joined in). But why the disorderly rush for the door, if, as the US military had been telling us over the years, they were so well-trained and disciplined? Because of the absence of NATO cover following the US and allied withdrawal? Yet note: over the 20 years of the US presence, Afghan military and police forces lost about 66,000 people, the US fewer than 2,500. Had the dead Afghans not been fighting for their country’s future?
Second, it isn’t correct to say that the US role in Afghanistan “was never supposed” to be about nation-building. Here is president George W Bush speaking in April 2002: “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government…(and) education system for boys and girls which works.”
And then, significantly: “America has a much greater purpose than just eliminating threats and containing resentment, because we believe in the dignity and value of every individual. America seeks hope and opportunity for all people in all cultures. And that is why we’re helping to rebuild Afghanistan.” If that’s not a statement on nation-building, going well beyond the Biden doctrine of national security, what is it?
Third, Biden says he opposed a recommended surge in 2009, when he was vice-president. Fine, but he should also have noted that years earlier, when a US senator, he had in fact urged more troops for Afghanistan. People change their minds, of course, but he should have been candid. We all know, however, that an unbending commitment to transparency isn’t in politicians’ DNA.
Fourth, Biden appeared to be making an
ex post facto justification of US and allied withdrawal: Afghans can’t defend their own country, so why should we stay and defend it for them, “bearing the brunt of the fighting” and losing American lives in the process? (No mention, naturally, of the 66,000 Afghan lives.) But he had already decided to withdraw, following the February 2020 Trump agreement with the Taliban, so why say now, because of the latest happenings, that the US was right to go? What would he have said, I wonder, if the Afghan forces had stood firm and fought the Taliban? But why wonder?
Fifth, Biden, while blaming Afghans for the delay in removing Afghan civilians, undertook to evacuate “US and allied civilian personnel (as well as) our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans…” He repeated that promise, and ramped up the evacuation rate.
The trouble is that the Taliban have, at the time of this writing, declared that no more Afghans are to leave the country, and that if the Western withdrawal doesn’t end on August 31 (Biden’s date), there will be “consequences.” Now comes ISIS-K, anti-Taliban and anti-US, who, I hear, practise an Islam that makes the retrograde Talibani version sound like Sunday school. Their suicide bombers have just killed scores of people, US soldiers included, at Kabul airport. Biden has vowed revenge. But how to execute it, even if drones and surrogates are used, without continuing to be involved in the very Afghanistan he says he’s withdrawing from?
On August 24, before the ISIS attack, he mentioned “contingency plans.” What will those be now?