Journalist Aleksey Zabrodin on how the decision to pursue the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has turned into a foreign policy disaster for Joe Biden.
When the U.S. began the withdrawal from Afghanistan on May 1, analysts from many countries were alarmed. Without external support, Ashraf Ghani’s government would not last a year. The Taliban, an organization recognized as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, would assume control over the republic. The country would become an Islamic emirate, which would violate all conceivable and inconceivable human rights. The delicate seeds of democracy, sown in the arid Afghan soil 20 years ago, would be burned overnight by the harshest interpretation of Sharia law.
Even those observers who were not deeply familiar with Afghan affairs were alarmed at the gloomy forecasts of skeptics. Those concerns were not fairy tales, but reality knocking on the region’s doors. However, Joe Biden and his administration flatly refused to listen to critics. Instead, for three months, they proudly reported on the intelligence planning that would allow the American military to leave Afghanistan even ahead of schedule. At first, the Democrats were supported by the voice of international optimists, who tried to put out the fire of growing panic with soothing speeches.
There are a few logical questions that emerge from those developments. Did Americans, experts in foreign intervention, not understand what they were doing? How could disorganized divisions of bearded men descending from the mountains defeat the Afghan government forces trained by Pentagon instructors for two decades? Why wouldn’t ordinary Afghans, having breathed the air of freedom, resist the Islamists driven back to the fringes of the country in 2001?
Biden and his supporters answered all such questions unequivocally: The concerns are understandable, but the local army would cope, and free Afghans would never accept the power of mujahedeen equipped with machine guns. In general, the world could rest assured that everything was under control because “America is back,” even if it leaves certain places.
On Aug. 15, even earlier than the most pessimistic forecasts, Kabul fell under the Taliban’s onslaught. Although the word “fell,” perhaps, somewhat romanticizes the toothless and cowardly surrender of the capital by government troops, accompanied by the haphazard flight of the highest officials of the republic.
Despite all the chaos in Afghanistan, the American public initially welcomed Biden’s decision to withdraw. Any war for democracy in distant lands sooner or later draws public opposition. Especially if the operation becomes the longest in U.S. history. In this case, only the most apathetic would refrain from condemning the federal government for wasting billions of dollars and thousands of American lives.
Therefore, no matter what happens in the country occupied by the Taliban, at least tens of thousands of fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children and other close relatives and friends of the U.S. military will sincerely thank Biden. There have been too many coffins for America over 20 years. And in the eyes of these people, Biden will remain the person who brought their families home. Needless to say, the withdrawal will save billions of dollars in the context of the economic crisis due to COVID-19.
However, the irony is that the Afghan war was almost the only military operation led by the U.S. that was, one way or another, approved by the international community. And in America itself, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, this invasion was initially thought to be a necessary and just retaliation in defense of democracy, freedom and even peace.
In the U.S., the voice of pacifists and opponents of the war in Afghanistan grew louder and more aggressive in recent years. Nevertheless, the rest of the world would have calmly endured the presence of Americans in Afghanistan for another year or two, maybe an entire decade. Washington was heavily criticized on many occasions concerning the Afghanistan campaign: for soldiers’ behavior in several instances, for undue bombing of Afghan weddings and other festivities mistaken for terrorist activities, for lack of assistance to fight corruption and build democratic institutions. However, the U.S. was never condemned for starting the operation. Afghanistan is not Iraq. Everyone understood that the presence of the Americans in this country guaranteed the region some stability.
Now the triumphant return of the military that had seemed to be more of a well-organized flight home has turned into a real foreign policy disaster for Biden. And it is not just that the Taliban launched an active offensive, capturing new provinces every week before Americans had even left. The problem lies much deeper, begging one simple question: What have the U.S. and its allies been doing in Afghanistan for 20 years?
In response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will say that the international operation has fulfilled its objectives. The most notorious militant of all time, Osama bin Laden, was eliminated back on May 2, 2011, during Barack Obama’s administration. Terrorism that led to the 9/11 attacks has been defeated, despite al-Qaida’s strong ties with the Taliban at the dawn of the century.
But this response does not answer all the questions. For example, how did American instructors train the Afghan army, which will only be remembered for its haphazard flight under the onslaught of the Taliban? Moreover, while demanding reform and a fight against corruption in Ukraine, why and how did the U.S.-backed democratic government in Kabul accumulate enough money to be able to head for the good life and abandon all this hell, leaving the poor Afghan population on its own?
And what are the Afghans who have worked for the Western coalition for 20 years still doing in the country? Why weren’t these people evacuated? Why are they forced to beg for help and listen to expressions of concern from U.S. officials? And the main question: How did all this happen under a leader who had previously served as vice president for eight years and devoted his whole life to foreign policy?
Whatever Biden’s past success on the international stage may be, in the remaining three and a half years of his term of office, he is likely to go down in history as a president under whom the smoldering problem of Afghanistan became an uncontrollable fire. And the withdrawal of troops will not be associated with attractive footage showing the handover of military bases to the Afghan army, but with frightening videos of desperate crowds of Afghans at the Kabul airport, clambering onto U.S. Air Force planes, some finding their last refuge on the blazing hot roofs of the city’s houses.
And, perhaps, the photographs of the evacuation of the U.S. diplomatic mission by helicopters from the roof of the embassy building in Kabul most vividly demonstrate the catastrophic miscalculation by Biden and his administration. Only a month ago, the White House commander in chief assured that a repeat of Saigon — the similar evacuation of American citizens from Vietnam in 1975 — was impossible.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has already called on Biden to step down, calling what is happening “one of the greatest defeats in American history.” It is not hard to guess what subject will become one of the main points of pressure that Republicans will exploit in the upcoming midterm elections in 2022 and the presidential election in 2024. And although there is still time before the active phase of the next election campaign, the track record of Democrats and Biden personally will be tainted for a long time. America is back, leaving behind chaos and overwhelming uncertainty.
The author is a columnist for the Izvestia newspaper. The author’s opinion may not reflect the views of Izvestia’s editorial board.