AUGUST 15, 2021
During the 2020 political campaign, President Biden presented himself as a globe-trotting leader who had helmed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, served as President Barack Obama’s point man on complex international issues and who was determined to bring a steady hand to national security.
Yet the turmoil that has engulfed Afghanistan, which has led Mr. Biden to send 4,000 troops back to the country only weeks after he had taken 1,500 out, has confronted the White House with a crisis that could have lasting humanitarian and national-security consequences, former officials say.
“We are not at the worst point yet,” said Carter Malkasian, the author of a comprehensive history of the Afghan conflict who served as an adviser to former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford. “It is highly likely the Taliban will march into Kabul, overturn the democratic government we have been supporting for 20 years and seek to punish, if not execute, the Afghans who worked with us.”
Mr. Biden has resolutely defended his troop withdrawal decision, saying that Washington had accomplished its mission in the region by killing Osama bin Laden and depriving al Qaeda of its sanctuary in Afghanistan, and had nothing to gain by perpetuating its military deployments in the country.
“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Mr. Biden said in a statement Saturday. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
Former officials, however, say the fallout could have lasting repercussions. The cratering security, which has put the Biden administration in a race to evacuate thousands of Afghan allies, may threaten the rights of women and could provide terrorist groups with an opportunity to move into Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces.
“I think it is damning for him to have created this situation in his first significant action as commander in chief,” said Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan during the Obama administration and has worked under Democratic as well as Republican presidents. “It’s an unforced error, and as an American I am deeply concerned.”
So far, public opinion polls show that a plurality of Americans favor Mr. Biden’s position. Yet they also indicate that many people have paid little attention in recent years to Afghanistan and that attitudes could shift depending on how events unfold after the last of U.S. forces are gone.
In a September poll by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, 38% supported removing all American forces after being reminded that more than U.S. service personnel, some 2,400, who had died in the nearly 20-year-old conflict. Some 57% acknowledged, however, that they hadn’t been closely following news about the U.S. role in the country.
“Americans may have supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan, but views could change if we start to see the Taliban beating women in the streets, preventing girls from going to school, and otherwise dealing brutally with the population as they did in the 1990s, or if we see the re-emergence of a terrorist hotbed, including the arrival of foreign terrorist fighters,” said Lisa Curtis, who served as the top National Security Council official for South and Central Asia during the Trump administration.
Mr. Biden didn’t inherit a strong hand in Afghanistan. In February 2020, the Trump administration concluded an agreement with the Taliban that called for all foreign troops to leave by May 2021. Eager to wind down the U.S. military presence, former President Donald Trump reduced U.S. forces more quickly than the deal required.
By the time Mr. Biden took office in January, the U.S. had 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, its lowest level since 2001, which diminished Washington’s military leverage. Under the Trump administration’s pressure, the Afghan government also released 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom have returned to the battlefield during the Taliban’s continuing offensive.
Still, Mr. Biden took office deeply skeptical of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As vice president, he argued for maintaining a modest counterterrorism force in the country instead of sending tens of thousands of troops in a surge of reinforcements.
“The Taliban, per se, is not our enemy,” Mr. Biden told Newsweek in 2011, drawing a distinction between terrorist groups that menaced the U.S. and the Taliban, which threatened the Afghan government. Mr. Biden lost the argument on sending troops during the Obama administration, but as commander in chief, he was finally in a position to call the shots.
In contrast to the numerous Trump policies he reversed, he opted to carry out Mr. Trump’s deal with the Taliban instead of trying to renegotiate it. In so doing, he overruled his top military commanders: Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Gen. Austin Scott Miller, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan; and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Citing the risks of removing American forces to Afghan security and the U.S. embassy, they recommended that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while stepping up diplomacy to try to cement a peace agreement.
“This is really his first big decision as commander in chief,” said Eliot Cohen, a military historian and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies. “He is unquestionably willing to stare down his advisers. This is a decision that involves a lot of blood, just not American blood. Whether it was wise or not, it was not an act of weakness. He is a hard guy, determined to follow through on his instincts, and live with the consequences.”
Those consequences, however, have come more quickly than the White House had anticipated.
Mr. Biden’s decision to remove U.S. forces prompted other NATO nations to remove their larger force of some 7,100 troops and led foreign contractors, whom the Afghan military depended on to maintain its aircraft, to head for the exits.
The abrupt departure of international support added to the crisis of confidence by the Afghan government’s forces. Their swift defeats happened as the U.S. struggled to secure access in Central Asian nations for U.S. military forces or at least contactors to more easily carry out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan if al Qaeda or other terrorism threats emerge.
And it happened before the U.S. had evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked with the Americans and are now in danger, prompting Mr. Biden to temporarily retain 5,000 troops in Kabul to safeguard the airport and the U.S. Embassy.
The Biden administration has been at pains to dispel the impression that this is a Saigon moment, referring to the frantic American departure from South Vietnam in 1975 that came to symbolize America’s defeat. Yet while the White House insists the U.S. accomplished its main aims in Afghanistan, the consequences of the withdrawal, however, have come much more quickly than it anticipated. Just last month, Mr. Biden told reporters that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
The sense that events have outrun Mr. Biden’s planning has given fodder to Republican lawmakers, who have largely refrained from criticizing Mr. Trump’s handling of the issue while trying to turn Mr. Biden’s claim to foreign policy expertise into a political lability by challenging his understanding of Afghan realities.
“The folks in the administration keep pointing to the fact that the Afghan forces have the advantage in airplanes, equipment and training compared to the Taliban,” said Richard Fontaine, a former foreign-policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain and the chief executive officer of the Center for American Security, a think tank. “All of that is true, but it comes down to will. And it turns out the Afghan military’s will to fight for the government was bound up in our will to remain supportive of that government and present on the ground.”