Biden knows Afghanistan is getting uglier.
When reporters asked President Biden last week if he feared the Afghan government could collapse in the face of the Taliban’s military advances, he responded with ill-concealed anger.
“I want to talk about happy things,” he said.
The President went on to reply – he said the regime could survive but only if its members stop arguing – but then he called for a halt.
“I will not answer any more quick questions about Afghanistan,” he said.
Why this is so is no secret: Topics like reports on job creation or the US recovery from the pandemic make Biden speak of successes. Afghanistan offers only a selection of failures.
The news is bad. The Taliban have occupied much of the country’s territory; the Afghan government armed forces, which the US has spent more than $ 88 billion to build, appear to be disintegrating. In the areas they have conquered, the Taliban conquer Islamic fundamentalist rule, including the oppressive treatment of women. If the government survives, the country could quickly plunge into civil war.
“The devastation and the murders … President Biden will have these ugly pictures,” warned Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) this week.
That was a partial blow, but true nonetheless, and Biden knows it: Presidents are blamed for disasters that occur under their supervision, whether or not they caused them.
Biden saw that. He was Vice President when President Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq to general applause in 2011, only to come under fire in 2014 when Islamic State raged across the country.
So even if Biden would prefer to speak of “happy things”, he has to remain involved in Afghanistan – for political reasons as well as for reasons of national security and humanitarian reasons.
That means he must press for negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government to reach a peace deal or at least prevent a bloodbath, which diplomats believe is more achievable.
It means the warning that the US will use force against terrorists in areas controlled by the Taliban, just as it does in other countries.
It means making vigorous efforts to help more than 18,000 Afghans who worked for the US military and their families leave the country.
And it means updating the contingency plans to evacuate the U.S. embassy in Kabul, which still has about 4,000 employees, including 1,800 Americans, guarded by about 650 U.S. soldiers.
No wonder Biden is irritated when asked about the subject. He is holding a bag left by three previous presidents: George W. Bush, who launched the invasion in 2001 but then focused on Iraq; Obama, who tried to stabilize the country with a temporary deployment of troops; and Donald Trump, who promised to retire but never quite delivered.
Regardless of its approach, the Afghan government remained corrupt, fragmented, and largely unable to defend itself.
Biden, who supported the invasion as chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, was a skeptic in 2009 when, as vice president, he did not argue very privately against Obama’s rise. Twelve years later, when he became president himself, options were poor.
Trump promised the Taliban that the remaining 3,500 US soldiers would leave the country by May 1, 2021; In return, the Taliban made two promises: not to attack Americans and to hold serious peace talks. They kept the first – no American has died fighting in 17 months – but they broke the second.
Biden’s decision was to either maintain the presence of US forces, which would almost certainly lead to attacks by the Taliban, or to complete the withdrawal.
He decided to pierce the boils and get out.
So far, the political costs have been negligible, largely because most Americans have long accepted that the military effort has failed. (A majority reached this conclusion by 2014, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.)
Republicans are divided on this issue – a legacy from Trump who broke with his party’s traditional Hawkish stance. When Biden announced his decision to withdraw the last of the troops, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky described it as “a grave mistake,” but Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said he was “glad the troops are coming home.” .
Many polls suggest that Americans have simply lost interest in the distant conflict, especially if no US troops are killed.
Nevertheless, Biden is rightly measured by the result; mainly because of whether a Taliban victory makes Afghanistan a base for al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups – the reason for the invasion of American troops.
If there is any good news in a dire situation, it is this: The administration seems to be working on every point on the departure checklist.
The past two decades have been painful for American foreign policy, but they have taught at least some useful lessons.
Afghanistan is not the first war the US has lost. We are a more experienced nation now – sadder, but maybe also wiser.