Every time Joe Biden opens his mouth on Afghanistan, he digs himself ever deeper into a hole that risks engulfing his entire presidency.
Incapable of admitting his mistakes, and determined to spin the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Afghanistan as merely the unavoidable consequence of a long-overdue U.S. military withdrawal, Mr. Biden is leaving even those who might have given him the benefit of the doubt plenty of reason to question his judgment. He may soon find himself quite alone in defending his decision to leave Afghanistan at all costs.
“The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” Mr. Biden told ABC News interviewer George Stephanopoulos last Wednesday, only six weeks after telling reporters that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Forced back before the cameras on Friday in yet another damage-control exercise, the President tried once again to defend his decision to withdraw, saying the United States no longer had a national-security imperative for maintaining troops there. “What interest do we have at this point with al-Qaeda gone?” he asked.
Many of those who conceived and carried out the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan could not let that question go unanswered. While it is a shadow of its former self, the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is not “gone” from Afghanistan. It may even be poised to rise again there amid the “chaos” Mr. Biden has unleashed.
And it is certainly not about to waste the propaganda victory it has been handed.
“Mr. Biden’s strategic impatience has given a huge boost to militant Islam everywhere,” Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under Barack Obama, wrote in a weekend op-ed in The New York Times.
Two decades might sound like a long time to engage U.S. soldiers abroad in the absence of an immediate national-security threat, were it not for the fact that the U.S. has stationed far more troops in Europe, Japan and South Korea for five or more decades. What’s more, from the more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan under Mr. Obama, the U.S. presence had dwindled to fewer than 10,000 by last year – enough to keep the Taliban at bay and allow a semi-democratic Afghan government to keep the peace and protect the basic rights of most citizens.
“Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure,” Mr. Crocker added.
Now, the Taliban can spin the narrative that the “infidels” have been vanquished, emboldening like-minded Islamic fundamentalists in neighbouring Pakistan seeking to overthrow that country’s government. “The prospect of violent destabilization of a country with about 210 million people and nuclear weapons is not a pretty one,” Mr. Crocker warned.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who served as George W. Bush’s strongest ally in the war on terror upon which the former president embarked after the 2001 attacks, also tore a strip off Mr. Biden, accusing him of showing “obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars.’ ”
By early this year, Mr. Blair said, the NATO troop presence in Afghanistan was not “remotely comparable” to the 150,000-soldier peak in 2011, adding that “no allied soldier had lost their life in combat in 18 months.”
Mr. Blair bemoaned efforts to discredit the nation-building exercise in Afghanistan in which Western countries engaged after initially overthrowing the Taliban in 2001. “Today we are in a mood that seems to regard the bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention, virtually of any sort, as a fool’s errand,” he wrote, while highlighting the “real gains” made over two decades in Afghan living standards, freedoms and education, especially for women.
Like Mr. Crocker and Mr. Blair, David Petraeus, who served as commander of the U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan in 2010-11, insisted the pre-withdrawal status quo was “sustainable” with a minimum number of U.S. and NATO troops. “Why did we just get so impatient that we didn’t appreciate that you can’t take a country from the seventh century – where it was under Taliban rule, when we toppled them – to the 21st century in 20 years or less?” he asked in a Wall Street Journal interview. “It is heartbreaking. It is tragic. And I think it is disastrous.”
And by next week, when U.S. troops are set to leave Kabul for good, it could be even worse.
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