Not since Major General William Elphinstone’s retreating British army was picked off in 1842, has a foreign occupier left Afghanistan under such a cloud. It took three years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 for its Kabul ally to submit to mujahideen forces. It was two years after the US military’s exit from Vietnam before Saigon fell to the communists in 1975. On Monday Kabul folded to the Taliban almost three weeks before the official day of America’s departure.
“We look like a deer caught in the headlights,” says Mathew Burrows, a former senior CIA officer now at the Atlantic Council. “It is one more chink gone in the American empire.”
The scenes of chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport will supply anti-American propagandists with years of footage. America’s failure after two decades of fruitless nation-building has many authors, starting with George W Bush and including Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
But as the president on whose watch the concluding fiasco took place, Joe Biden’s name will be indelibly linked to it. The question is whether he can extract any foreign policy gains in what one analyst described as Biden’s “Ides of August”. Since he was partly elected on a promise to restore competence to the White House, there is also concern that the fall of Kabul will wound Biden’s ability to push through his domestic agenda.
Much hinges on whether in the coming days the US can evacuate the thousands of remaining American civilians and tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters, fixers and contractors from an airport surrounded by armed Islamists. The fact that it has boiled down to this — a crush of fleeing Afghans trying to get through an airport perimeter controlled by the Taliban — is reputationally damaging.
Washington is awash in finger-pointing at a withdrawal plan that failed to foresee this contingency. The Bagram military base, which lies 35 miles north of Kabul and has two runways, would have been a secure point for an orderly evacuation. But the US military vacated the base on July 4. The White House did not push back on the Pentagon’s plan to extricate Americans with guns first and leave the unarmed civilians until later.
“It will be hard to separate Biden’s strategic decision to leave Afghanistan, which may ultimately prove to be right, with the hasty and sloppy and panicked way in which it has been executed,” says Steve Biegun, former US deputy secretary of state. “This comes as something of a body blow to Biden’s ‘America is back’ message. Everyone thought he was going to be different to Trump.”
In addition to closing Bagram first, there are three additional questions about Biden’s competence. The first is the volume of US military equipment that has been left behind for the Taliban, including aircraft, hundreds of military Humvees and tens of thousands of rifles, rockets and night vision goggles.
The second is whether Biden ignored intelligence estimates suggesting the Taliban could recapture power on a far more rapid timeline than the six to 18 months the White House was saying. The third is Biden’s failure to consult fully with Nato allies about the speed and logistics of the pull out. On all three, the decision ultimately boils down to the president.
“It defies belief that this withdrawal was imposed by the military,” says a former senior Pentagon official. “The US military was following civilian orders.” The official adds that it was also misleading to blame what has happened on intelligence failure. “The intelligence agencies gave a range of forecasts, including the worst,” he says.
Biden has repeatedly insisted that his hands were tied by Trump’s 2019 deal with the Taliban, which provided for US withdrawal in exchange for the Islamist group’s vow to forswear terrorism. But people close to Biden say that he would have pulled out of this “forever war” regardless.
The president’s rationale also sits uneasily with the fact that he has undone, or is seeking to undo, so much else that he inherited from Trump, such as the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the pull out from the Iran nuclear deal and quitting the World Health Organization.
“Biden has consistently since at least 2008 believed that the US was throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan,” says Jonah Blank, who was Biden’s South Asia policy adviser when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Blank took then senator Biden to Afghanistan three times, including an infamous visit in January 2009 — just days before he was sworn in as vice-president — in which he disgustedly walked out of a dinner with Hamid Karzai, the then Afghan president.
“If Karzai had shown some gratitude for American help, and indulged in some self-criticism, it might have gone differently,” says Blank. “Biden’s mind was pretty much fixed from then on.”
At home, Biden’s decision is popular, although some polls this week show a sharp negative tilt in public opinion as Americans watched the harrowing scenes from Kabul airport. In spite of having backed Trump’s deal with the Taliban, Republicans are depicting Biden as weak and hinting that he is unable because of his age to carry out his duties responsibly. This week for the first time Biden’s approval rating dropped below 50 per cent.
But there is little sign the fall of Kabul will damage his chances of passing his set piece $3.5tn spending bill which will depend on razor-thin party line votes. It is rare that a foreign policy setback, however embarrassing, derails a US domestic agenda.
The bigger impact on Biden’s role is likely to be felt with America’s allies and adversaries. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, told the European parliament that the departure was “a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for western values and credibility and for the developing of international relations”. Armin Laschet, Germany’s possible successor to Angela Merkel after September’s general election, described it as “Nato’s biggest debacle since its founding”. Even the reliably Atlanticist British failed to conceal their disappointment with an America that had failed to keep them abreast of the details of its pullout.
The further the distance from Washington DC, which is split along fiercely partisan lines, the greater the blurring between Biden and Trump. “This looks like America First except that its officials can speak French,” says a former US intelligence officer.
History may yet distinguish between the unseemly manner of America’s pullout and the strategic logic behind it. Biden’s thinking is that there is no elegant way to quit a war you have lost.
Moreover, the sooner the US could leave Afghanistan, the more it could focus on America’s biggest strategic challenge of dealing with a rising China. Biden’s foreign policy priorities are the three Cs — China, Covid and Climate. There is concern, however, that Biden will feel so stung by the intense criticism of this week’s disarray that he will feel obliged to show that he is tough on China.
“Where is the strategic gain from this loss?” asks Burrows. “There will be pressure on Biden to show the upside and change the narrative.”
That temptation may be increased by China’s ill-concealed satisfaction with America’s humiliation. Twitter was awash with Chinese “wolf warriors” crowing over the humbling of America. It may be no coincidence that Chinese aircraft breached Taiwanese airspace on Wednesday in a war game exercise it said was prompted by the island’s “provocations”. It was notable that as western countries were hurriedly abandoning their embassies in Kabul this week, those of China and Russia continued to function normally.
“If Biden’s withdrawal shows that America is becoming less messianic and will focus more on looking after its people at home, then this decision will be a good one for America and China,” says Eric Li, a Shanghai-based political scientist and venture capitalist, who is a frequent defender of China’s stance to western audiences. “That is what China will be hoping for.”
There is also the question of Pakistan, which has long sponsored the Taliban as its tool for creating “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, this week congratulated Afghans for “breaking the mental chains of slavery”. In contrast to 1996, when it first seized power, today’s Taliban has broad international ties. For Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, this week’s rapid takeover amounts to a big strategic win.
“The joke was that in 1989 the ISI defeated the Soviets with American help,” says Sarah Chayes, an Afghan expert who was a senior Pentagon adviser. “Now the ISI has defeated the United States with American help.”
The regional implications of the Taliban’s return may also limit Biden’s ability to pivot to China and away from the post-9/11 era of “forever wars”. As a nuclear-armed client state of China, Pakistan is an important piece on the geopolitical chessboard. India, which is a close partner to the US, and is considered the heaviest future counterbalance to an ebullient China, is likely to feel more vulnerable after this week’s pullout. That will probably complicate Biden’s ability to convert the pullout into a strategic gain.
In practice it may prove hard to neatly divide Biden’s decision to end this war with his plans to strengthen America’s focus on the Indo-Pacific. There is also the question of whether the Taliban will honour its commitment to keep groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis out of Afghanistan. In 2011, Biden, as vice-president, arranged America’s final departure from Iraq. Then, too, he spoke about cutting America’s losses from a costly failed exercise in nation building. The resulting Iraqi power vacuum led to the rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria and America being sucked back into the region.
“The question is has Biden learned from that episode?” asks Chayes. “I think the answer is probably no. He made up his mind on Afghanistan long ago.”
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