Reprinted from SpectatorWorld.com.
President Biden walked to the White House podium on Tuesday and proclaimed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan an ‘extraordinary success’. He relied on the unanimous advice of military leaders and strategic advisers for these wise decisions. If there were any failures, they were due to Donald Trump. Never in history, he said, had there been such a successful airlift. Of the Americans who wanted to leave, we got out an amazing 90 percent. Surely that’s a success all around, despite the collapse of the Afghan army, which nobody expected. Of course, as a far-sighted leader, Biden said he had ordered plans for that, too. Best of all, he said, we accomplished our goal in Afghanistan, which was to prevent al-Qaeda from setting up a base there to strike the US or its allies. After that resounding success, we no longer needed to keep troops in the country to protect America. If any terrorists reassemble, we have great ‘over-the-horizon’ capabilities to discover them and take them out.
Every one of those claims is false.
Calling the evacuation mission an ‘extraordinary success’ is worse than false. It is shameful. Biden is taking credit for a humiliating defeat that leaves thousands of innocents behind. He should be shouldering the blame, as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower did when he drafted a statement to be read if the D-Day landings failed. Fortunately, Ike never had to read that statement. Joe Biden took the opposite approach. When the evacuation mission in Afghanistan ended in chaos, he simply decided to read the ‘victory statement’. Americans are likely to see it for what it is.
It is certainly true that the US military conducted an amazing airlift in the frenzied final days, carrying vast numbers of Americans and our allies to safety. That deserves enormous praises, both for the soldiers who planned it and those carried it out. The 13 who died gave their last full measure of devotion to our country.
But getting a lot of Americans out of Afghanistan is far less that Joe Biden promised, or Americans expected. He repeatedly said that he would get all of them out. He failed, but decided to leave anyway. Those left behind are in imminent danger of being killed or taken hostage. Taliban fighters are going door-to-door to find them. Some in danger are Americans, some are Green Card holders, some hold special visas, and some are families of people who helped us, whom we refused to evacuate. Husbands, brothers, and fathers stayed behind rather than abandon their families. It is reprehensible for an American president to look at this humanitarian catastrophe, caused by his decisions, and take a victory lap.
Biden is partly right to blame the Trump administration for its agreement to leave Afghanistan by May. That, too, was a strategic error. But Biden’s blame-shifting misses several key points, aside from the time-limit we always set for blaming previous presidents. Biden owns this one. One problem is that Trump at least claims his exit strategy was ‘conditions based’. That is, we wouldn’t leave until we had gotten all our people out. Biden extended Trump’s exit date from May, before heavy fighting began, until September 11. Then some staffer must have told Biden that his new date meant the Taliban would be dancing on the grave of the World Trade Center attack on its 20th anniversary. ‘Bad optics’, as they say. So Biden moved the date to August 31. His choice, and the Taliban accepted it.
But both the August and September dates have the same fundamental flaw. They occur in the middle of the country’s fighting season, when all the terrorist warriors are out in force. The best time to execute a large scale withdrawal is winter, when Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders have pulled back to Pakistan. Yet no US military leader or civilian adviser seemed to object to Biden’s idea. They were unanimous in supporting it, as he has said time again and again amid the unfolding disaster.
There were two other major defects in Biden’s withdrawal plan. One is that the US military was given two huge, urgent tasks without the time or resources to accomplish them. They had to close down all our military, diplomatic, and intelligence facilities in a few weeks, and they had to evacuate everybody from them. Since Biden refused to send in reinforcements or delay the final date, that was a mission impossible.
The second, closely-related defect was the unilateral decision to shutter Bagram, America’s biggest military facility and air base. Biden’s military advisers agreed with his decision, apparently, because they didn’t have enough troops to defend both Bagram and the US Embassy in Kabul. That constraint was Biden’s decision, and it had profound consequences at Bagram.
Abandoning that base had three catastrophic effects. First, it deprived the US of a major location for evacuation. Second, it effectively released the worst captured terrorists in the country, who were being held at a prison next to the base. When the US left, the Taliban freed them immediately. Among those freed were top al-Qaeda commanders. That’s not surprising since the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network are three terrorist organizations joined at the hip. Third, abandoning Bagram in the middle of the night, without coordination with friendly Afghans, clearly told those allies that the US was abandoning them almost immediately. That signal led to their swift collapse, the very one Biden administration said was so unexpected. (That, too, is an exaggeration since the intelligence community has leaked self-serving statements that it did expect a quick collapse).
Biden’s victory speech continued a theme that both he and Donald Trump adopted, with somewhat different emphases. The US had been fighting there for 20 years and couldn’t continue this long and costly battle. The problem is that they were comparing the current, sharply-diminished US presence in Afghanistan with the far-larger war we fought for the first 10 years. Our current deployment was under 3,000, devoted most to intelligence gathering, special operations, and air support for the Afghan army. No American soldiers had been killed in the past 20 months before the suicide bombing at the Kabul Airport last week. The 13 US soldiers killed there were more than had been killed in any of the past four years. So, the real issue, first for Trump and then for Biden, was whether to keep that relatively small force in Afghanistan as vital assistance for the government and as a listening post for terrorist operations that might strike the US and its allies. We know the withdrawal collapsed the friendly government. It is a fantasy to say that shutting down the listening posts won’t seriously degrade our intelligence and ability to identify terrorist operations in real time.
Finally, while President Biden promised to get out every American who wants to exit, he didn’t say how he would accomplish that. He even mentioned a United Nations statement that urges the Taliban to respect human rights. Yeah, that should work just fine. They have no intention of respecting women’s rights or those of Afghans who worked with the US. Expect to see harrowing stories about them over the next weeks. Compounding that travesty, the US now has to worry about hostages. Every American left in Afghanistan is at risk from a Taliban army that has held one former US soldier for over a year. They have every incentive to grab more. And if they don’t do it, Isis-K and others will.
There was precious little truth in Biden’s victory speech and none in calling the withdrawal a success. There is no truth, either, in saying this war is over and won. The enemy gets a say in that. What they are saying is, ‘We now control the country, and some of us are planning to strike abroad. We still hold some of your people, and we now have billions of dollars of your equipment.’ These are terrorists who will do everything they can to harm America, Americans, and our friends abroad. At home, we will have to ask the hard question: is the best we could do?
Charles Lipson is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago and a contributor to The Spectator.