What on earth was Joe Biden thinking — if, that is, he was thinking?
On July 8, the president defended his decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan. After assuring Americans that “the drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way” and that “U.S. support for the people of Afghanistan will endure,” he took some questions. Here are excerpts from the White House transcript.
Q: Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
The president: No, it is not.
The president: Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable. …
Q: Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam, with some people feeling —
The president: None whatsoever. Zero … The Taliban is not the South — the North Vietnamese Army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy. …
Q: Mr. President, how serious was the corruption among the Afghanistan government to this mission failing there?
The president: Well, first of all, the mission hasn’t failed, yet. There is in Afghanistan — in all parties, there’s been corruption. The question is, can there be an agreement on unity of purpose? … That — the jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
Biden’s heedlessness, on the cusp of a sweeping Taliban blitzkrieg that on Sunday saw them enter Kabul, will define his administration’s first great fiasco. It won’t matter that he is carrying through on the shambolic withdrawal agreement negotiated last year by the Trump administration, with the eager support of Donald Trump’s isolationist base, and through the diplomatic efforts of Trump’s lickspittle secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
This is happening on Biden’s watch, at Biden’s insistence, against the advice of his senior military advisers and with Biden’s firm assurance to the American people that what has just come to pass wouldn’t come to pass. Past presidents might have had a senior adviser resign in the wake of such a debacle, as Les Aspin, then the secretary of Defense, did after the 1993 Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia.
This time, Biden owns the moment. He also owns the consequences. We should begin to anticipate them now.
The killing won’t stop. Watch — if you have the stomach — videos of the aftermath of an attack in May on Afghan schoolgirls, which left 90 dead, or the massacre of 22 Afghan commandos in June, gunned down as they were surrendering, or Taliban fighters taunting an Afghan police officer, shortly before they kill him for the crime of making comic videos.
One Taliban official declared that their jihad was directed not against ordinary Afghans but only “against the occupiers and those who defend the occupiers.” Yet the list of Afghans who fill that bill reaches into the thousands, if not higher.
Women will become chattel. There are roughly 18 million women and girls in Afghanistan. They will now be subject to laws from the seventh century. They will not be able to walk about with uncovered faces or be seen in public without a male relative. They will not be able to hold the kinds of jobs they’ve fought so hard to get over the last 20 years: journalists, teachers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs. Their daughters will not be allowed to go to school or play sports or consent to the choice of a husband.
Afghanistan will become a magnet to jihadists everywhere. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy leader, is one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists. Don’t expect him to change his spots, even if he claimed otherwise last year in a Times guest essay.
“The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida will get stronger,” Saad Mohseni, the head of the Afghan news and media company Moby, told me on Saturday. “Why should the Taliban fear the Americans anymore? What’s the worst that could happen? Another invasion?
“These guys are going to be the most belligerent, arrogant Islamist movement on the planet,” Mohseni added. “They are going to be the Mecca for any young radical of Islamic heritage or convert. It’s going to inspire people. It’s a godsend for any radical, violent group.”
What happens in Afghanistan won’t stay there. The country most immediately at risk from an ascendant Taliban is neighboring Pakistan. After years of Islamabad giving sanctuary and support for the Afghan Taliban (as long as they attacked coalition forces), Pakistan must now fear that the next regime in Kabul will give sanctuary and support for the Pakistani Taliban. There may be poetic justice in this, but the prospect of fundamentalist forces destabilizing a regime with an estimated 160 nuclear warheads is an unparalleled global nightmare.
Short of this, the calamity in Afghanistan is a recipe for another wave of migrants, one that will wash over Europe’s shores and provoke a populist backlash. “We’re going to see 20 Viktor Orbans emerge,” warned Mohseni, referring to the Hungarian strongman and Tucker Carlson BFF.
America’s geopolitical position will be gravely damaged. What kind of ally is the United States? In the last several years, the United States has maintained a relatively small force in Afghanistan, largely devoted to providing surveillance, logistics and air cover for Afghan forces while taking minimal casualties. Any American president could have maintained this position almost indefinitely — with no prospect of defeating the Taliban but none of being routed by them, either.
In other words, we had achieved a good-enough solution for a nation we could afford to neither save nor lose. We squandered it anyway. Now, in the aftermath of Saigon redux, every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power, with no lasting appetite for defending the Pax Americana that is still the basis for world order. And every ally — Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Israel, Japan — will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies. The Biden Doctrine means the burial of the Truman Doctrine.
But didn’t we have to leave Afghanistan sometime? So goes a counterargument. Yes, though we’ve been in Korea for 71 years, at a far higher cost, and the world is better off for it.
But wasn’t the Afghan government corrupt and inept? Yes, but at least that government wasn’t massacring its own citizens or raising the banner of jihad.
But aren’t American casualties unacceptable? They are surely tragic. But so is squandering the sacrifice of so many Americans who fought the Taliban bravely and nobly — and, as it turns out, for nothing.
But is there any reason we should care more about the fate of Afghans than we do of desperate people elsewhere? Yes, because our inability to help everyone, everywhere doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to help someone, somewhere — and because America’s power and reputation in the world is also a function of being a beacon of confidence and hope.
Now these arguments belong to the past. The war in Afghanistan isn’t just over. It’s lost. A few Americans may cheer this humiliation, and many more will shrug at it. But the consequences of defeat are rarely benign for nations, no matter how powerful they otherwise appear to be. America’s enemies, great and small, will draw conclusions from our needless surrender, just as they will about the frighteningly oblivious president who brought it about.
Bret L. Stephens has been an opinion columnist with The New York Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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