During his address on Monday, President Joe Biden defended his foreign policy and blamed Afghan forces for not doing enough to save their country, even though they bore the burden for years before US troops left, once in the middle of the night without warning them. Afghans do have responsibility to help save their country, though historically many governments have needed international assistance (sometimes for decades) to defeat or resist authoritarian rule. This includes the United States, which needed the French during the Revolution and foreign fighters in the Civil War, when up to one-third of Union troops were foreign-born. But the fact that the Afghan war was long, the costs were once high, or Afghan forces followed the US into retreat does not mean the withdrawal was wise, necessary, or moral. Instead, Joe Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal and the debacle that followed may become a textbook example of an American foreign policy failure.
America cannot absolve itself from the tragedies occurring due to the abandonment of Afghanistan—started by President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and ended by President Joe Biden’s horrific execution—by blaming Afghans for not fighting enough. As Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute tweeted in response to President Biden’s accusation that Afghan forces were unwilling to fight:
This is a lie. Since Jan 2015, when Afghans took over combat operations, 53-57,000 Afghan soldiers have died in combat fighting the Taliban-including more than 2,600 this year. Afghans with US air support held off the Taliban for more than six years. You took away the air support.
In a Washington Post op-ed the next morning, Thiessen elaborates:
To say Afghans were not willing to fight is libelous. For more than six years, the Afghan army bore the brunt of the fight—and with US support they succeeded in holding the Taliban at bay. It was only when Biden withdrew the US mission planning, intelligence and air support that had enabled them to succeed that Afghan forces were overwhelmed.
In response to the president’s Monday address, Brian Williams praised Biden on MSNBC, but former CIA analyst and No One Left Behind co-founder Matt Zeller countered, “I feel that I watched a different speech from the rest of you guys. I was appalled.” He continued:
The idea that the Afghan military should be blamed for this, do you know how many causalities the Afghan military took in an average year? More than the United States did in 20. When you’re not getting paid on a regular basis, when you’re not getting fuel, when no one is supplying you with ammunition, and yet you’re still showing up to the fight? How dare us for having to blame these people for not having the audacity to survive a Taliban onslaught.
Meanwhile, Providence contributing editor Paul D. Miller, who has covered this topic for years, rightly argues that the United States cannot tell itself that the mission was impossible or unsustainable. After all, the military footprint had been small and casualties low, even as the US helped Afghans fight the Taliban. He explains why the US should have stayed:
If the United States had maintained a small presence (perhaps marginally larger than what Trump left behind), it could have kept the Afghan army in the field indefinitely, giving time and space for the political situation in Kabul to sort itself out, for a fresh round of negotiations with better leverage against the Taliban, and for reconstruction and development to continue.
Critics may complain that “we can’t stay forever.” Perhaps, but we could have stayed long enough for the military presence to evolve, very gradually, into a near-peacetime deployment. Again, the military presence was small, low-risk, and relatively low-cost.
And we should have stayed because the mission is not over. While bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is not and, along with the Islamic State and a murderer’s row of copycat jihadists, is almost certain to regain safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan following the collapse of our allies.
What makes the situation worse is that the government should have realized the Taliban would likely overthrow the government, even if the administration misjudged how long Kabul could survive. According to government documents, military officials knew that the Afghan military could not win against the Taliban without US support, though they told the public a different story. So any plan to fully withdraw US troops and air support in 2021 effectively meant surrendering the country to the Taliban. Generals and diplomats warned Biden that his withdrawal could lead to disaster, and Gen. Mark Milley wanted to keep 2,500 troops to maintain stability in the country. But the president was insistent upon leaving.
If Biden was correct—that staying in Afghanistan would prevent the United States from countering China or Russia or focusing on other foreign policy priorities—then the withdrawal might have been morally and strategically defensible. For example, in 1973 the US withdrew roughly 24,000 combat troops from Vietnam; at that point the US had suffered roughly 38,000 deaths in the previous six years (for comparison, the US suffered 66 deaths in the six years before leaving Afghanistan); a large swath of the American electorate was actively opposed to the Vietnam War (whereas until last week most Americans rarely thought about Afghanistan); North Vietnam had powerful nuclear-armed allies in China and the Soviet Union, so the US could not fully invade the North without risking the mistakes of the Korean War (of course, the Taliban had no such support). In this case, retreat was defensible. But what Biden has done in Afghanistan appears to be a withdrawal of choice, not of necessity.
If Miller and others are correct that a relatively small number of troops could have helped Afghan security forces continue fighting the Taliban (as they had been doing successfully for years), then for the retreat to be justifiable, the benefit of withdrawing must be greater than the consequences of the Taliban retaking the country. Given the relatively small costs of maintaining security in Afghanistan, just a small negative consequence of withdrawing would have been enough to justify staying in the country. As the events of the past week have shown, the geopolitical consequences may prove significant, and the domestic political consequences have already been detrimental to the president.
Time will tell, but the US may face several geopolitical consequences due to Biden’s withdrawal. First, China has already benefited and may expand its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan, which the US has opposed. Probably more significant, America is now a less credible ally for those facing the likes of China. If the Biden administration would rather let the Taliban retake Afghanistan—thus leading to American allies shot dead in the street, the desperate falling from aircraft trying to escape, amongst other images—than to keep a small force in the country, then the world should doubt how much this government is willing to do when the task is difficult. At the very least, the failure to evacuate more Afghan allies demonstrates incompetency within the Biden administration that should concern every ally and voter. The withdrawal also means proponents of international religious liberty should doubt Biden’s commitment to human rights, given what will happen to religious minorities and others under the Taliban now. The US may overcome these consequences, such as by boosting military spending to demonstrate its commitment to countering China, but doing so may prove more expensive than keeping a small force in Afghanistan would have been. Finally, if al-Qaeda or other terrorists can use resources from the country to launch attacks, or if a civil war destabilizes Pakistan and the wider region, the withdrawal may be increasingly viewed as a catastrophic foreign policy mistake.
Politically, President Biden has already endured consequences for his decisions. Normally, foreign policy doesn’t matter much to voters. But after this debacle, Five Thirty Eight’s aggregation of polls shows that the president’s approval rating dropped below 50 percent for the first time. Because US presidential elections are generally close, such a drop could be fatal to his reelection hopes (assuming he runs in 2024, which many doubt). Meanwhile, proponents had argued that the American people supported the withdrawal, but a recent poll showed that support dropped 20 points, to less than a majority, after the public saw what leaving Afghanistan meant in practice. This reversal is yet another reminder to isolationists that they cannot rely upon public opinion polls to justify their policies, because on global affairs voters’ views can change dramatically overnight. A steady trickle of reports about Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—such as on the “forced marriages,” aka rape, of young girls—across both liberal and conservative news outlets for the months and possibly years to come will mean that the president may not be able to just wait for the news cycle to change.
Joe Biden may have hoped that he could blame Trump, the Afghans, or others for his mistakes. But his choices have consequences, and at this rate his withdrawal from Afghanistan may become one of the great blunders American foreign policy students will need to study.