There is a mass of criticism against President Biden over the pullout from Afghanistan, but there is one thing I have not heard or read: any evidence that it was possible for him to do better, given the context and starting circumstances. No one has given the slightest indication that Biden did not do everything he could. Maybe he didn’t—but no one has presented evidence that he didn’t.
I am not saying that Biden didn’t fumble to whatever extent; all I am saying is that I have heard no evidence at all that he did, and most seem to ignore the run-up to the withdrawal that caused the worst of the disaster. Trump hosted the Taliban last year, giving them extremely favorable terms, releasing 5000 of their people being held prisoner, delegitimizing the Afghan government we had helped build while giving the Taliban a much stronger position, and promising to pull out American forces by May 2021. Then he removed too many troops too quickly, strengthening the Taliban position even more without giving the U.S. time to draw down safely. This put Biden in a very difficult position; he delayed the pullout because there was not enough time under Trump’s plan to pull out properly, and before the job could be reliably done, the country collapsed.
It is quite possible that, despite the fact that the pullout was a huge disaster, Biden may have done the best job possible.
This is why quagmires are quagmires: they are messy to extract yourself from them, and you always get massive criticism for leaving when a victory is not possible. It does not help when the previous office-holder totally destabilized the situation and made an organized and proper action impossible to achieve.
However, the real blame lies not with Biden, and not even fully with Trump, but with George W. Bush. And the error was not just Afghanistan, but with 9/11 itself. I am amazed at how people immediately forgot how this whole thing began in the first place.
In May of 2001, Bush got his first big policy pushed through: a massive tax cut for rich people. The second item on his agenda came up next. Can you remember what it was? I doubt it. Few people do.
It was a push for Missile Defense, commonly referred to as “Star Wars”—a tremendously, even ruinously expensive cash cow for private industry.
So, why is that relevant?
The reason is because the Bush administration’s chief justification for the program hinged on the idea that hostile states like North Korea would soon perfect missiles that could eventually reach American territories, and pepper us with nuclear weapons. This assertion, however, was ludicrous on it’s face: not even North Korea would be stupid enough to leave a clearly readable missile path going from them to an American target, as there would be an immediate and devastating nuclear response that could effectively wipe out the entire nation.
The greater and rather obvious criticism that emerged immediately after Bush made his case was that hostile states like North Korea and Iraq would simply use terrorism instead of costly and difficult ICBMs. Pack a nuke into a shipping crate, sail into an American harbor like New York, and set it off there. This would cheaply and easily evade any defense, and would not leave a clear, readable path back to the responsible party. Even if identified as, say, North Korean nuclear material, they could simply claim that it had been stolen and used by terrorists and they had nothing to do with it.
Remember when we learned that, a month before 9/11, Bush resisted being presented with a PDB (Presidential Daily Briefing) from a CIA analyst, one which warned that bin Laden was planning to attack the United States soon, and after reluctantly receiving it, Bush snapped back, annoyed, saying “All right, you’ve covered your ass now”?
That seemed to make no sense; why would a president be so annoyed, even pissed off, at being given a warning of an imminent terrorist threat?
However, it does make sense once you remember that Bush was in the middle of a big push for missile defense, for which the primary criticism was that terrorism made the missile defense system irrelevant.
Indeed, the Bush administration had shown outright hostility towards the counter-terrorism mechanism that the Clinton administration had built up, dismantling much of it, and generally disregarding terrorism as a lesser threat than hostile nations using missiles. Indeed, after 9/11, the justification for missile defense simply crumbled and disappeared.
In fact, on the day of 9/11 itself, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Advisor, was scheduled to give a speech at Johns Hopkins University in which she would have played up the missile threat as she downplayed the threat of terrorism.
In that context, the Bush administration ignoring the threats of bin Laden’s attacks makes sense: had they taken positive action against a terrorist threat, they would be admitting to the nation that terrorism was indeed a pressing threat, which would cut the legs out from under their missile defense initiative.
And so bin Laden’s plan slipped by the willfully unprepared Bush administration, and 9/11 happened.
However, even that was not Bush’s greatest blunder, nor was it the only willful one.
When 9/11 hit, Bush—who, you also may not recall, was plummeting in the polls and regularly mocked as Cheney’s idiot puppet—suddenly was seen as a courageous hero, standing a hundred feet tall, bravely leading the war that threatened us all.
It was ratings gold—and was a dream come true for republicans, giving them a free pass to vote in every last piece of policy legislation they could dream of. Everything was suddenly cast as being elemental to the War on Terror—even consumer shopping was touted as a weapon against evil. Ironically, missile defense was shelved, but that was okay, because bloated defense industry contractors suddenly had more government money pouring into their coffers than they knew what to do with.
Bush, of course, immediately set out to invade Afghanistan, but it is important to note that Afghanistan was not his preferred target, and that he was not really interested in that war, nor in capturing bin Laden.
This became evident in December of 2001, when we had bin Laden boxed in at Tora Bora—but Bush had already shifted his focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, secretly planning to begin a military offensive in a country completely unrelated to the terrorism threat (Saddam Hussein was antagonist towards, not in cahoots with, terrorist groups).
A slip-up by bin Laden allowed the U.S. military to pinpoint his position within 10 meters—but Bush and his officers had completely understaffed the special forces necessary for the mission, creating a delay that allowed bin Laden and more than a thousand of his men to slip away into Pakistan.
If the U.S. had captured or killed bin Laden at that time, we could have declared victory, pulled out with anti-Taliban forces in charge, and stopped the whole Middle East war right then.
But that’s not what Bush and Cheney wanted. They wanted to invade Iraq and control the supply of oil, so bin Laden getting away was actually a plus for them.
They allowed Afghanistan to fester, ignored bin Laden, and invested heavily in prosecuting a war in Iraq, thus allowing not one, but two simultaneous quagmire wars in the Middle East.
When Obama came into office, he could not withdraw from Afghanistan while bin Laden was still there, and he focused on the hunt. Within two and a half years, he actually finished the job Bush failed to do in more than seven years, but still Obama did not withdraw from Afghanistan. He considered it, but stepped away from the idea when he realized that the Taliban would take over again.
But that’s the whole problem of a quagmire: the bad guys will always take over. What Bush and then Obama both did was to kick the can to the next administration.
One thing to know about Afghanistan: it has never been a winnable fight. The British learned this lesson in the past, and the Soviet Union paid a heavy price to learn the same lesson. Even from the beginning, there was no real strategy that realistically allowed for the U.S. to stabilize the country. It was bound to fail from the start.
Meanwhile, the United States spent two trillion dollars paying military contractors to wage and maintain the war—as presidents wavered, knowing the political price they would pay for ending it.
Trump, surprisingly, actually made the decision to pull out; not being a neoconservative, he was never a fan of overseas wars or controlling the flow of oil. So he made a deal with the Taliban.
The problem was that he was a gigantic idiot, and did everything the wrong way. He backstabbed the Afghan government we had built, gave the Taliban everything they wanted in exchange for an empty promise not to support terrorism, drew down troops to such a low level that control of the country was slipping away even before Biden took office, and promised a pullout in May 2021, not nearly enough time to do the job properly. Trump obviously didn’t care—he pulled out of Syria too quickly as well, and had no problem with the chaos it created.
Even republicans called the plan a mess and a mistake, unusually agreeing with the head of NATO.
The sad fact is, Trump was so engrossed in first campaigning to win the 2020 election, and then fighting his battle to delegitimize the election results, that he pretty much let the Afghanistan situation crumble unattended.
When Biden came into office, despite facing an unprecedented health crisis and a republican Congress bent on overthrowing Democracy itself, he got on to the Afghanistan problem immediately. He concluded that a May withdrawal would not be possible, and extended the stay as long as he could to allow for the withdrawal to be carried out effectively—but the Taliban, strengthened by Trump’s irrational promises and botched negotiations, were already closing in, and the Afghan military folded and fell apart just as quickly as Iraq’s had some years back. Trump more or less assured the collapse would be catastrophic.
This was an unwinnable war from the start, one begun by an inept bumbler who did not care, allowed to fester by a president who did not want to sully his reputation, followed by an idiotic narcissist who gave away the farm… only to fall on Joe Biden, who had long wanted to end the war, but was handed such a mess that no one would have been able to withdraw cleanly.
Do you really think that Trump would have handled it better? Of course not; it would have ben ten times worse. At least.
So I leave you with this proposition: if you want to argue that Biden failed, that he screwed up and made the mess worse than it had to be, be prepared to have evidence to back that up. Because I haven’t seen a damn shred of proof to support that proposition.