Analysis: America’s Afghan War is over, but the battle for Biden’s legacy is only just beginning
Despite the heroism shown in the massive airlift effort, the withdrawing troops left between 100 and 250 Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans eligible for protection from former US comrades, and an entire nation under fundamentalist Taliban rule – along with one even more extreme faction of the IS.
But any feeling that the US is free from the aftermath of a war it has bled in for 20 years is refuted by the history of a country that charges a heavy price from its former occupiers. And the trauma of the two weeks since the fall of Kabul has left an indelible mark on Joe Biden’s presidency, Washington’s bitter policies, and America’s reputation with its disappointed allies.
Biden can claim to have the courage to finally end a war that was long lost but survived the presidencies of three predecessors. This could be more popular with voters in the future than Beltway critics of his retreat will appreciate. And the crowding out of other domestic challenges, including a worsening pandemic, could soon steer the rare spotlight on what was often referred to as the “forgotten war” until a few months ago.
But the pandemonium of U.S. withdrawal – a humiliating exercise that messed up everything Biden made promises of a stable, honorable U.S. exit – tarnished the aura of competence he sold the country in the last election and raises questions about his Leadership, openness and capacity to suppress the diverse crises of the nation. While his defenders claim he has been wrongly accused of two decades of strategic failure in Afghanistan, the president certainly drafted his own postscript of incompetence and failed to predict the shockingly rapid collapse of the Afghan state and army.
The President attempted to spread his own benevolent retelling of the end of the war in a speech to the nation on Tuesday afternoon. Promoting the evacuation effort, Biden referred to the 120,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan and said, “No nation has ever done anything like this in all of history.”
“The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, courage, and selfless courage of the US military and our diplomats and intelligence officials,” said Biden.
But it was perhaps telling that he left it to General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, to announce the end of the war and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about how the US would still try to get the remaining ones Americans left behind. Biden, trying to restore his self-proclaimed reputation for steady hands, instead sat in front of a row of TV monitors earlier in the day as he brought together local officials dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
The upcoming showdown in Washington about the war
Biden’s Afghan misjudgments, which resulted in US troops relying on their 20-year-old enemies in the Taliban to ensure evacuation, and which effectively resulted in the death of 13 US soldiers in a suicide bombing last week, made it possible Republicans, building a narrative of bad luck and neglecting it, will go to the midterm elections next year.
The GOP’s allegation that Biden left the Americans behind could be an arsonist as their chances of walking free and safe seem far removed under the Taliban. And the risks inherent in Biden’s promised anti-terrorism strategy “beyond the horizon” were the death of a young Afghan family this weekend in a US attack on a vehicle bomb that the American military said it hit Kabul airport was determined, clearly.
But the last few weeks also showed the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, which ignored its complicity in ex-President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, a fold that set the stage for the current debacle. The usual spate of misinformation circulated by the conservative media – when US forces were stationed on a dangerous overseas battlefield – showed that the previous presidency’s threat to the truth is far from over, and is the latest sign that that Biden’s plea for national unity will remain unfulfilled.
GOP lawmakers, who excused and facilitated the former president’s historic attack on democracy, called for Biden’s impeachment or resignation. And Trump’s own jaw-dropping incoherence about the war, which he boasted of forcing Biden to end, shone through on Monday in a statement appearing to propose that the US invade again to recapture hardware already destroyed by the military.
The heroism of fallen troops
But the withdrawal also demonstrated US power.
This final U.S. jet departing followed numerous previous flights carrying more than 123,000 Americans, Afghans, and citizens of Allied Nations out of Afghanistan in an extraordinary operation that seemed impossible just 10 days ago after the Afghan government collapsed.
The 13 US troops killed in an ISIS-K attack were killed while giving Afghans and their descendants a chance at life in the US and elsewhere, which will affect generations to come.
However, Biden’s legacy now risks being marred by events beyond his control. Not least the fact that the Taliban – host of al-Qaeda in 2001 – will celebrate their renewed control of a failed state full of terrorists next month on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
There is an argument that Biden simply reduced US losses and prevented more bloodshed, heartache and agony by finally ending the war.
But Afghanistan’s rewind moment also leaves a terrible question that is likely to get even more acute in the years to come if it emerges as a threat to US security again. What was all this for after the deaths of 2,461 American soldiers and civilians, other Allied soldiers, and many more Afghan civilians?
In the East Room of the White House on July 8, Biden reported to the country that the US withdrawal was “safe and orderly,” noting that because of the way the withdrawal was being handled, “nobody – nobody, US- Armed forces or any armed forces have … been lost. “
In setting this standard for the operation, the president pushed himself into a political corner. His harrowing ordeal in the same stately room last week after the suicide bombing that also killed dozens of Afghans has thwarted the White House’s attempt to call the withdrawal a victory. The death of US forces means that any political glee that Biden might have been tempted to end the war for now appears distasteful.Even before last week, Biden’s behavior had revealed an unflattering side of his character. He explained that the buck stopped with him because of the chaos after the fall of Kabul, but actually dumped the blame almost everywhere. The accounts of a smooth evacuation in Kabul were exposed as false by eyewitness reports from journalists there, including CNN’s Clarissa Ward. The president seemed indifferent to the plight of Afghans who had risked their lives as translators and in other positions for US forces and diplomatic efforts.
The reputation of a leader who lived on compassion and always caught up with Americans will require some repairs.
Biden’s defenders also get the point that many of the experts criticizing the president were ex-generals and officials whose own strategic failure had made the war deserving of the nickname “forever.” But the allegations that all critics of the withdrawal efforts were war hawks proved that misinformation by the media is not the exclusive sin of the right.
Waiting for the verdict of history
The coming weeks are likely to offer an even less flattering portrayal of Biden’s failure than the one that happened in real time. Even Democrats on Capitol Hill seem to have an interest in finding out what went wrong. Biden’s recent comment that getting out of war was inevitable is not only inconclusive, but directly contradicts his promises made just six weeks ago.
To the most important questions that still need to be answered:
- Why did the President and his government fail to recognize the fragility of the Afghan government and army in such a spectacular way? The misjudgment laid the groundwork for the chaos of an evacuation that began with several desperate Afghans falling to their deaths after clinging to the outside of US jets.
- Why weren’t there enough troops to cover the long-planned withdrawal? Bagram Air Force Base’s job of concentrating evacuations from the U.S. Embassy and Kabul International Airport is one of the biggest criticisms of Biden’s GOP critics.
- How did the US get to the point where its forces were suspended on the tiny island of Hamid Karzai International Airport, which was highly unsuitable for the construction of one of the largest airlifts in human history?
- And why did US troops depend on security at the airport of their enemy, the Taliban?
- Given the urgency expressed by veterans groups and multiple lawmakers on Capitol Hill, why hasn’t the administration responded faster to process special immigrant visa applications? What impact did Trump’s gutting of the U.S. refugee application system have on this?
Biden is fortunate in the short term that both houses of Congress are currently under Democratic control. While Republicans vow to hold him accountable, their ability to do so in the minority is severely limited. And given the cascade of events that will unfold before the midterm elections, it’s not even clear whether a Republican-controlled House of Representatives or a Republican-controlled Senate could get prosecution for events 16 months in the past.
Over time, a president’s legacy is defined by a few key highlights that create a kind of symbolism that exemplifies how to remember them. For Jimmy Carter, it was the catastrophic hostage-taking in Iran. For Ronald Reagan it was his call to the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall.
The role Biden’s Afghan episode will play in shaping its own place in history will depend on what happens in the years to come and whether the recently revealed shortcomings of his own leadership are confined to the chaotic retreat from America’s longest war or themselves in others reflect crises.