The eternal war is over, but the eternal debate may have just begun. While presiding over the end of a lost 20-year mission in Afghanistan, President Biden touched on a lengthy argument to history on Tuesday about his decision to get out, how he handled it, and what it means for America’s future.
By ending America’s misfortune in nation-building halfway around the world, Mr. Biden played a long game, assuming that he will be remembered by posterity for finally liberating the country from a swamp, not how he did it. Although his approval ratings have fallen to the lowest level of his short term in office, most Americans in polls still support leaving Afghanistan, and the White House expects they will soon move on to other issues such as the pandemic and the economy.
“We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan,” the president said from the East Room of the White House, where so many important speeches on Afghanistan have been delivered by four US presidents over the past two decades. “After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refused to send another generation of American sons and daughters to fight a war that was long overdue.”
He named the more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies who have been evacuated in the two weeks since the Taliban took power in Kabul, boasting that “no country has ever done anything like it in all of history.” And he claimed that after more than 2,400 American combat deaths, it was time to break free from a country the United States has no vital national interest in staying in.
But the images of a pandemonium at the Kabul airport and the president’s failure to evacuate every American, as he promised just days ago, raised questions about his leadership that could also prove damaging in the long run. They would fit into a broader charge from Republicans portraying Biden as an untrustworthy, ineffective commander in chief who humiliated America on the international stage — let alone that the withdrawal was based on an agreement negotiated with the Taliban by President Donald J. Trump. .
“President Biden’s inappropriate round of victory was disconnected from reality,” said Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse. wrote on Twitter after the president’s speech. “His heartless indifference to the Americans he left behind enemy lines is shameful.”
Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, member of the House Republican leadership, rebuked Mr Biden for refusing to take responsibility for the messy withdrawal. “Shouting at and blaming the American people is not what was necessary in this speech,” she said. “For Joe Biden, the buck stops on everyone and everyone but himself.”
Supporters of Mr Biden’s decision pushed back, saying he had shown political courage in sticking to the withdrawal despite a strong backlash.
“There was no perfect time or way to leave Afghanistan,” said former rep Justin Amash, a former Republican from Michigan who left his party during Mr Trump’s presidency. “President Biden led the evacuation of more than 100,000 people and withdrew our troops. I disagree with the president on many points, but I am grateful that he persevered despite all the pressure.”
A poll published this week by Reuters and Ipsos found that the vast majority of Americans wanted Biden to keep the troops there after the deadline, if necessary, to ensure all Americans were gone. Forty-nine percent said the military should stay “until all U.S. citizens and Afghan allies are evacuated” and another 25 percent said they should stay at least until all U.S. citizens were out. Only 13 percent said troops should “evacuate immediately”.
Overall, 38 percent of Americans approved of Mr Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. But they don’t just blame him — 20 percent say he deserved “the most debt to the current state” of Afghanistan, while 10 percent named former President George W. Bush, who opened the war after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and 9 percent pointed out Mr. Trump, and others pointed to the Afghans, the generals or others.
Beyond politics, the debate will come about what the Taliban’s victory means for America’s place in the world. Mr. Biden plans to chart a new course for foreign policy, somewhere between the muscular, ready-to-fire internationalism that reigned under Mr. Bush and sometimes President Barack Obama, and Mr. Trump’s “America First” isolationism.
“The world is changing,” Biden said Tuesday, citing the challenges posed by China, Russia, cybersecurity and nuclear proliferation. America must lead, he added, but not always with military force. The withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of “an era of major military operations to recreate other countries”.
Yet even some European allies have expressed concern that the defeat of the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan will encourage terrorist groups and weaken America’s position in the world.
Part of Biden’s political effort in handling the Afghan withdrawal was reconciling his own words with the reality on the ground. He was the one who vowed in April to carry out the withdrawal “responsibly, intentionally and safely” and added in July that it was “done in a safe and orderly manner”.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the turmoil following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They used brutal public punishment, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their track record as rulers.
But on Tuesday, he suggested it was unrealistic to expect that. “Some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and, ‘Couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly way?'” he said. “I respectfully disagree.”
“The bottom line,” he added, “is that there is no evacuation at the end of a war that you can wage without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced. None.”
Similarly, in July, he was the one who said it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would take over the country and that there was “no circumstance” of an embarrassing, chaotic exit, similar to the helicopters taking off from the embassy in Saigon in 1975. . .
And he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos after the Taliban took over Kabul that he would hold US troops in Afghanistan beyond his self-imposed August 31 withdrawal deadline, if necessary to evacuate any Americans still on the ground. “If there are any American citizens left, we’ll stay until we release them all,” he said at the time.
With 100 to 200 US citizens still in Afghanistan ready to leave, Mr. Biden made no effort on Tuesday to explain why he did not extend the deadline as he had promised. But he suggested that most of those left were dual citizens who “decided earlier to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan,” only to change their minds later.
Instead, he pointed to the 5,500 Americans who were successfully evacuated. “The bottom line is, 90 percent of the Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” he said. (The White House later corrected it, saying it was 98 percent.) “And for those remaining Americans, there’s no deadline. We remain committed to getting them out if they want to get out.”
Yet, after half a century in national politics, Mr. Biden knows better than anyone how fast the news cycle moves. His advisers and allies expect another round of harsh criticism around the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks with photos of the Taliban flag flying over Kabul.
Within days or weeks, however, they assume that attention will once again shift to the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s proposals for major public works projects and social welfare programs, and a dozen other issues that will leave the public more than far away. absorb Afghanistan.