It’s not just Joe Biden’s failure; it’s much more complicated

United States President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, DC, the United States, on August 31, 2021 [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

 

As the nation observed the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans took time to reminisce about the events that unfolded following the attacks, particularly the catastrophic maelstrom that was the war in Afghanistan as well as the recent withdrawal from the country. As with most chaotic or deadly situations, some frantically searched for a scapegoat in order to shift their raw emotions onto a single actor. News anchors have consistently aimed criticism at President Biden for the disarray, resulting in a noticeable decrease in his approval rating (FiveThirtyEight, “How Popular Is Joe Biden,” 09.13.2021). However, the media has not done enough reflection on who is really to blame. It is impossible to place one person at fault for the entirety of what happened. It’s not just Joe Biden’s failure; it’s much more complicated. The actions and proposals set forth by his three recent predecessors make way for blame to be shifted onto any American leader who has served in the past 20 years.

If one is truly eager to find an American president worthy of blame, they may want to consider shifting their anger onto former U.S. President George W. Bush. Bush launched the United States into war based on the delusions of himself and his advisors, which then diverted the military’s attention away from Afghanistan before the death of Osama bin Laden. It could be argued that, since Bush left the White House in 2009, his actions should not be attributed to the chaos of the recent withdrawal whatsoever. Apart from the fact that this proposition is simply ludicrous, dates are irrelevant in this context; the orders set forth by the former President and the eager warhawks that blindly assisted him are partly responsible for our current situation. Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell may deserve some respect for initially dissenting against a war declaration, but the fact that he buckled under manipulation from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and many more will remain a stain on his pride and judgment. Blame them all.

Although George W. Bush will always hold the reputation as the president who launched the war on terror by invading Afghanistan, he is not the only President at fault. Former President Donald Trump made a consequential mistake when he began negotiations with the Taliban and excluded the Afghan government from such talks. Moreover, the original deadline set for the withdrawal, May 1, extended to Aug. 31 by Biden in the early months of his presidency, was far too optimistic to ensure a safe and secure evacuation from the country (FactCheck.org, “Timeline of U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” 08.17.2021). On an even more serious note, inviting the Taliban to Camp David around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks was a display of purely willful apathy and ignorance towards the thousands of people killed that day, as well as their families. Since Biden was the leader to complete the deal, Trump and many of his acolytes have flip-flopped on the issue, as is typical for them. When Trump announced that he was speaking with the Taliban about an American withdrawal, Republican leaders such as Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell praised that some form of initiative was being taken. Now that President Biden has officially gone through with the very same plan, those same leaders and other notable Republicans have decried the execution of the withdrawal, even calling on Biden to resign or be removed from office through the evocation of the 25th Amendment (Forbes, “GOP Lawmakers Ramp Up Calls For Biden’s Resignation, Removal Over Kabul Attacks,” 08.26.2021). They seem to forget that if Trump had been commander-in-chief during the withdrawal, the exact same thing would have happened, and they would have said that “nothing more could have been done.” Blame them all.

Once more, do not just put Bush or Trump or even their lackeys at fault. After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, former President Barack Obama engaged in a mission creep, changing objectives in the American military campaign which resulted in a nearly decade-long extension of the stay in Afghanistan. While he did very well in decreasing the number of remaining troops throughout his two terms, he failed to deliver on his promise of returning all soldiers home by the end of 2016. President Biden could have certainly made changes to Trump’s deal by allowing for a slow and gradual evacuation, the most effective method probably being extending the deadline even farther, possibly to the end of 2021. One does not need to be a foreign relations expert to know that there is no possible way to aid thousands of fleeing citizens and refugees in such a short amount of time, strategically or physically. Had Biden stayed relatively quiet on the set date for the withdrawal, the Taliban may have stalled their offensive on Kabul due to lack of logistical knowledge. Moreover, his resistance to acquiesce to find middle ground with his own intelligence and defense teams demonstrated his underestimating of the Taliban’s strength, as well as his overestimating of the Afghan forces’ grit. According to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during an Aug. 15 phone call with multiple congresspeople, the billions of dollars poured into the war over 20 years never could have bought the willpower of the Afghan forces (Daily Mail, “Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin tells briefing he is ‘beyond disappointment’ by Afghan army’s surrender to Taliban,” 08.16.2021). The Biden administration inherited a tumultuous situation that was made worse by the three previous administrations. Yet, they had an opportunity to alter negotiation arrangements to allow for a more secure evacuation from Afghanistan, but they did not execute the plan to the best of their potential. Blame them all.

In the absence of clear understanding, humans tend to react with the heart rather than the head (CNBC, “‘We were naive’: Ex-CIA, military, and diplomatic veterans reflect on lessons learned, 20 years after 9/11,” 09.12.2021). Following a national flashbulb event, the general populace’s initial thought is to blame a leader for the disarray that had to be endured by thousands. What has become lost on some during America’s “Forever War” is that the invaders themselves, the Taliban, are also at fault. The American military was the only force keeping Taliban extremists at bay. It can be argued that remaining in Afghanistan for a few more months would have made the evacuation safer, but this idea fails to consider whether the Taliban would agree to such a proposal. Had American soldiers remained in Kabul for a few more months, the Taliban still may have decided to fight their way to the city, creating even more military and civilian casualties with the ultimate result unchanged. Blame them all.

The United States arrived in the Middle East in 2003 for two reasons: to kill Osama bin Laden and dismantle Al-Qaeda. Although it took eight years, the mission was accomplished after bin Laden’s assassination in May 2011. All American soldiers should have returned home immediately following this success; instead, they spent an unnecessary decade in Afghanistan. After 20 years, over 170,000 casualties and nearly $2 trillion in taxpayer money, Afghanistan fell in a matter of weeks (Associated Press, “Costs of the Afghanistan war, in lives and dollars,” 08.17.2021). To add insult to injury, it’s very likely that the Council on Foreign Relations, which supported the United States’ decisions during the past two decades, would have never rewarded or even supported an American withdrawal. Placing blame on one singular leader or group underscores the arrogant thinking pattern that Americans are notorious for. There is no single liable party; any American leader, president or secretary, who served in the past two decades played a part in the pandemonium, which has got to be the most damning conclusion of all.

2 Comments

  1. Ben, well thought out and well written. I agree with your thesis, but would add that leaving after killing Bin Laden would never have occurred. One of the interesting things I learned about the use of the atomic bomb in 1945 wasn’t how could we do it, but how hard it was to stop the process once it had been started. It seems to me the same mistake was made from 2011 to 2021. I look forward to your future pieces. All the best, J. Wigren

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