Biden’s Right That It’s Time for Us to Leave Afghanistan
This has not been a game of chess but Jenga, with players removing blocks from the stack hoping they wouldn’t be the one to do the inevitable and bring everything clattering down.
Biden, keenly aware of the impact of the horrifying scenes of chaos in the Afghan capital of Kabul, looked straight into the camera and said, “I am the president of the United States and the buck stops with me.” He acknowledged the mayhem and the human toll it is taking and he expressed his clear anger at the failure of the Afghan government and military to mount a defense of their own country. He specifically noted that the government had urged the U.S. not to begin early evacuations of foreign nationals because of the message it might send.
After he spoke, the talking heads came out in force and argued he did not accept responsibility. But “the buck stops here” is the ultimate expression of a president owning his actions. They said he did not explain how we could be in the situation we are in. But what they really mean is that he did not give the explanation they wanted.
CNN’s Jake Tapper called Biden's description of the swift collapse of the Afghan central government and military “finger pointing.” But it was indeed that collapse that accounted for the speed of the Taliban’s take-over: When the Afghan forces the U.S. has invested billions in should have stood up, they did not. Given that it was widely expected that the Taliban would ultimately seize control of the country — they were, after all, the parties with whom the last administration was negotiating — the key variable was whether the Taliban would meet any resistance.
Biden described the measures being taken to get thousands of embassy employees, US citizens, citizens of allied nations and Afghans who had aiding allied forces out. He reasserted the commitment of the U.S. to using international mechanisms to provide aid to the people of Afghanistan, and stressed that the U.S. would continue to place human rights at the center of our foreign policy priorities.
It would have been heartening to hear him use tougher language with regard to applying international pressure should the rights of women and girls be violated. He should have made a commitment to investigate fully where things went wrong with the exit plan. But he left no uncertainty about our willingness to use force in the event that violent extremists posing a threat to the U.S. again appear within Afghanistan’s borders.
“I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan. I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight endlessly in another country’s civil war,” he said. He noted that the collapse we are seeing might have occurred a few years ago or a few years hence but the way it unfolded provided further evidence that extending the stay of the U.S. military in Afghanistan would have been unlikely to produce a different outcome.
Biden’s reiteration of the rationale behind his decision—underscoring that we do not have any urgent national interest for which to fight in Afghanistan and that we have manifold urgent priorities elsewhere—was the main point that needed to be delivered to the nation. Finally, a US president was willing to accept the consequences of doing the right thing. He was doing it because it would save the lives of members of the US military. He was doing it because the time was long overdue to take such a step.
There may be no American political leader who understands the issues in Afghanistan better than Biden. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the U.S. first sent troops into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. He was chairman again after the 2006 elections through the beginning of the Obama Administration when it became clear that we had drifted from the clear mission of defeating Al Qaeda to an amorphous and therefore unachievable goal of somehow overhauling Afghanistan’s government and internal security environment to our specifications. When Biden became vice president, he emerged as the leading voice for getting out of Afghanistan, and recognizing we had an unachievable mission there. He has watched as Obama ignored his advice and finally hesitated to exit the fight in the last year’s of his administration. In the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign, he watched as Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban.
Biden and those around him and honest observers know that the scenes of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan were completely predictable. He knows in fact, that in large part, they are the consequence not of anything he has done but of the misguided decisions of the last three American presidents with regard to this war.
Those closest to Biden were gutted as were all observers to see the images of crowds clinging to transport planes and of bodies falling to their deaths as those planes took off. They know that the sheer ugliness of this departure and the undoubted miscalculations that led to that ugliness will live with them for the rest of their lives. But they also know the far greater cost that would have come from once again deferring the decision to leave and adding to the costs we have incurred over the past two decades.
That is why the president stood up, acknowledged the situation, described what is being done to fulfill our obligations on the ground in Afghanistan and then said, in effect, this is difficult, horrible even, but we will not lose our resolve to do what is right.
Tapper sniffed that the President and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken were “dodging the question” when they returned their focus to America’s long-term interests. But isn’t it about time a U.S. administration put our long-term interests first rather than worrying about the political fallout they might face because what they are doing is hard and difficult to control and at times gut-wrenching and profoundly regrettable?
Foreign policy specialists enjoy playing up the strategic aspects of what they do, often comparing it to a chess game. But for at least the past decade, the situation in Afghanistan has been more like Jenga. Slowly, cautiously, players have removed blocks from the stack hoping they would not be the one to do the inevitable and bring everything clattering down.
Biden, his aides, and his critics all knew this is the way the game would end. And the president today accepted responsibility for the outcome and let the American people have it straight about why he did what he did. Mistakes have been made in this latest chapter of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan but what is most important is that the president, after two long decades that have seen suffering that makes even that which we have seen this week pale in comparison, has finally had the wisdom to say this will, at last, be the final chapter.