Few American presidents have had their blunders so spectacularly validated in real time as Joe Biden in Afghanistan.
“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” the 46th president told reporters in July after a decision to end U.S. military involvement there.
Taliban fighters entered Kabul Sunday demanding unconditional surrender after wresting nearly the entire country from government control in a matter of weeks.
Biden had just pledged support for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders “as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement.” But by Sunday, Ghani had fled the country.
It seemed all that was left for the Biden administration at that hour was damage control. “This is not Saigon,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued on CNN Sunday morning, rejecting comparisons to the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 two years after U.S. troops were pulled out. But even as he spoke, helicopters were rushing to evacuate personnel from the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Were U.S. losses in vain? ‘Forever war’ in Afghanistan resulted in fewer terror attacks
And behind the broad news of bedlam were voices of thousands reduced to living in abject fear with the Taliban’s arrival; many, if not most, of them women who face a crushing and uncertain future of subjugation under a famously mysogynistic regime.
“Keep us in your prayers,” a terrified woman hiding in Kabul texted her sister, an Afghan-American living in the United States, as terrorists raged through the capital. That was her last message.
It didn’t have to be this way
A brief history of Biden’s Afghanistan decision-making since taking office makes one thing abundantly clear – the disaster that unfolded Sunday didn’t have to happen.
After 20 years of war, there was palpable frustration by most Americans with the failure of three successive presidents to achieve anything other than a stalemate in Afghanistan. George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 drew valuable military resources away from the Afghan fight.
One outside chance for peace, however, was a pledge by Taliban leaders last year to open negotiations with the Kabul government. President Donald Trump used this as an excuse to pull all but a few thousand troops out of Afghanistan.
USA TODAY Editorial Board:This July Fourth, America will leave Afghanistan independence in its death throes
Biden could have conditioned any further drawdown on good faith efforts by the Taliban to reach a peaceful settlement with Kabul. But over the objections of military leaders who warned that the Afghan government would collapse without U.S. security assistance, Biden decided in April to end military involvement by September.
He promised troop withdrawal wouldn’t be hasty. But, in fact, most were gone by early July. (The largest U.S. airbase was abandoned so suddenly that Afghan troops couldn’t even figure out how to turn the electricity back on.)
It was a choice with disastrous consequences. Any incentive for the Taliban to negotiate peace was gone. A security umbrella of U.S. air cover that had staved off battlefield defeats for Afghan troops evaporated. (A small Afghan air force with pilots overworked and targeted for assassination has not been up to the task.) And crucially, the morale disintegrated among frontline Afghan troops already poorly fed, denied pay and deprived of bullets and fuel. Hundreds surrendered without firing a shot.
A chance to save Afghanistan? Biden needs to learn the lesson of Operation Linebacker
“Brother, if no one else fights, why should I fight?” one Afghan soldier said, according to a Washington Post report.
No ambiguity about disastrous results
A Taliban offensive that began with vacuuming up countless district centers manned by small numbers of security personnel in July accelerated in August to the capture of all major cities north, south and west until insurgents reached the gates of Kabul.
Shortly before those fighters reached the city, Biden had ordered 5,000 U.S. troops into Kabul to assist evacuating U.S. personnel, and it was unclear Sunday just exactly what was developing on the ground there.
But here is where there is no ambiguity:
► Since the Taliban offensive, a growing humanitarian crisis has unfolded with 250,000 people fleeing their homes, all in the midst of a pandemic. And there are troubling reports of Taliban atrocities and score-settling.
► The White House said 20,000 Afghans were seeking special immigrant visas fearing for their lives because of working with Americans. They have tens of thousands of family members. How many got out and how many were left behind?
► Others in danger include women activists who also should have been included in any evacuations.
►Biden’s “America is back” foreign-policy pledge to the world after years of Trump’s global fecklessness now lies in ruins.
The president may have decided in April to militarily abandon Afghanistan to avoid further U.S. troop casualties. But he may wind up with the blood of U.S. friends and freedom activists on his hands, not only because of his decision to so rapidly exit, but because of his ensuing failure to carry out that mission before the Taliban aggression he unwittingly unleashed changed everything.