Joe Biden: Desperate scenes reveal an Afghan defeat that the president cannot deny
Under mounting political pressure, Biden appeared before the world on Monday to explain his failure to plan the exit from America’s longest war in the way his constituents and global allies had expected – in an orderly, dignified, and humane manner.
He is accused of missing out on Afghanistan’s impending collapse, slowing down the evacuation of Afghans who worked and trusted for America, and overseeing scenes of defeat that tarnish US power in the eyes of the world.
Biden’s defenders have rightly focused on the bad decisions left by ex-President Donald Trump, who negotiated an earlier US withdrawal with the Taliban that had knocked out the Washington-backed Afghan official government. And the mistakes of four governments resulted in US defeat to a repressive regime that will send geopolitical reverberations across the Middle East and around the world.
But Biden is the commander in chief, and the current chaos looks more like a shameful defeat than an honorable exit.
“I am the President of the United States of America. The money stops with me,” he said.
But while he accused former presidents – implicitly including Barack Obama, whose 2010 rise, Biden noted, was false – that they had not ended the conflict and the Afghans themselves for refusing to fight for a country, ravaged by generations of wars, the president said was not really following Harry Truman’s maxim. Instead, Biden tried to recreate a weekend of chaos and humiliation in Kabul. He suggested having the choice he had before himself of staying – or going – between years or decades.
He admitted he had underestimated the suddenness of the Afghan fall after news broadcasts repeatedly played videos of him and vehemently opposed any such possibility.
“The truth is, this worked out faster than we expected,” said Biden, but events belied his insistence that he planned for every possibility.
Presumably, these plans never anticipated the exodus that blocked the runways at Kabul airport. And Biden’s emergency deployment of 6,000 soldiers back to the capital in hurried blocks over the weekend didn’t give much evidence of emergency planning.
It is also easy to accuse Afghans of lacking courage to fight, from the ornate East Room of the White House, thousands of miles away from the trauma and fear of a nation on the brink of repression – and where billions of dollars are left building a coherent armed force has never been successful.
Democratic MP laments “failure” in Afghanistan
Biden’s explanations were inadequate for Rep. Seth Moulton, a US Navy veteran who served four terms in Iraq. The Massachusetts Democrat said history could tell how the Afghan war went wrong.
“But what matters today is the operation that is going on in Afghanistan. That’s the failure we’re talking about, ”Moulton said on CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront.
“This is the operation we need to fix because thousands of innocent lives are at stake,” said Moulton.
This operation now depends on the willingness of the Taliban, a US enemy for 20 years, not to interfere.
Biden was standing alone in the White House for a camera shot. Unusually, Vice President Kamala Harris was not at his side, nor were high-ranking military officials or Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his side.
The choreography could show a president looking the American people in the eye. But he also appeared quite isolated after a weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David, interrupted by a trip to Washington for the speech – and a later return to Maryland to continue his vacation.
The usually empathetic president paid tribute to the “heartbreaking” scenes in Kabul and its impact on veterans and the families of those lost in America’s longest war. But most of his speech seemed like an attempt to suppress the political setback of a weekend with horrific images.
In fact, most of Biden’s time was spent discussing a case he had already won before the public: the need to leave Afghanistan.
“How many lives – American lives – is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery?” asked Biden.
In essence, the president is relying on the American public’s desire to leave Afghanistan to put his mismanagement on paper upon departure. His instincts might be right. While Republicans use the debacle to portray Biden as an incompetent and weak leader, no one is likely to run for president in 2024 and vow to send US troops back to foreign battlefields.
More terrible footage – like the Afghans crashing from planes – will increase the political heat on the president. Perhaps he did not miss his Saigon moment – with helicopters taking off from the US embassy as in the hectic final hours of the Vietnam War. But if it can avoid a “black hawk down” parallel – the loss of 18 US soldiers on a humanitarian mission in Somalia in 1993 – it could hold its current political position. Even in this incident, which exposed a new commander-in-chief, Bill Clinton, to scathing criticism and triggered the withdrawal of US troops, the political heat finally subsided and Clinton won re-election.
In an earlier episode that appeared politically devastating to US power at the time, President Ronald Reagan withdrew US forces from Lebanon months after a suicide attack on US Marines barracks killed 241 members of the armed forces.
Biden will remember both dramas since he was a senator at the time.
The question also arises whether blanket coverage of the Afghan withdrawal – carried mainly by the Washington media, lawmakers, experts, and officials who lived with the war and its political twists and turns for 20 years – is widespread.
“I fully support my decision,” said Biden, referring to voters outside Washington who say pollsters support his decision to end the war.
A harmful narrative
A bigger political threat to Biden is the possibility that the Afghan disaster could produce a broader narrative of the failure surrounding his presidency. Biden has had a strong start to his administration domestically, signing a massive Covid-19 bailout package and pushing infrastructure spending in the Senate.
But Republicans – encouraged by endlessly selfish statements from Trump – are trying to picture an unhappy president who is weak overseas and besieged by streams of migrants rushing to the border and being overtaken by the pandemic. Trump, for example, accused Biden on Monday of “giving himself” to the Taliban and Covid-19.
It was a deeply hypocritical attack as Trump neglected the health emergency and courted the Afghan militia during his tenure. However, this does not mean that some voters will not get a detrimental impression of Biden’s abilities.
And the president’s own missteps could undermine his strengths. He portrayed himself as the repairer of American problems. He is the American president who campaigns for democracy – and he has just left a fragile Afghan democracy in ruins. His statements that the US is back are being undermined by a public withdrawal.
And when the Taliban once again welcomes terrorists targeting the United States, all the political bets the president made on Monday – after pointing out that the US smashed al-Qaeda more than a decade ago – are wrong.
“If what is happening in Afghanistan is a return to a safe haven for jihadists and Islamists, then the images we see today will forever be an albatross of Joe Biden’s legacy,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, across from CNN Burnett.
“If the Taliban of today are any different from the Taliban of the 1990s … then this chaotic ending to our 20-year odyssey in Afghanistan may not seem like such a terrible ending.
“This looks like a mess right now, and it looks like we didn’t predict it.”