Because he fixed the deadline for withdrawing American troops from the country without foreseeing how quickly the Taliban would return, the president of the United States is now facing the first serious crisis of his presidency.
The American presence in Afghanistan began in October 2001, under George W. Bush’s presidency, by shooting high-tech cruise missiles at al-Qaida’s terrorist training camps — camps that had the Taliban’s protection. The goal was to annihilate the organization responsible for 9/11. Operation Enduring Freedom was deemed a success in three weeks. It ended 20 years later with a chaotic withdrawal, pitiful and rash, negotiated with the same Taliban that Operation Enduring Freedom had chased out.
Because he fixed the deadline for the withdrawal without foreseeing how quickly the Taliban would return, Joe Biden is facing the first serious political crisis of his presidency. Seven months ago, he was nonetheless a president praised for his vast foreign policy experience moving into the White House. Quickly, while focusing on the COVID-19 crisis, he worked to break with his predecessor’s diplomacy by putting the United States back on track to multilateralism.
But the break was not complete. When it came to China and Afghanistan in particular, the Democratic president opted for continuity. Determined to bring all American troops home with his reelection in mind, Donald Trump began negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar. Those negotiations led to a not-so-glorious agreement, recognized by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with his visit to Doha in February 2020. The agreement, which the Taliban did not respect on their end and which is largely responsible for the current disaster, planned on American troops leaving.
Biden did not have to honor the agreement. But his opposition to being in Afghanistan is long-standing and deeply held. He thought that public opinion, which had lost interest in this country, was on his side. Only 2,500 troops remained, whereas there had once been 100,000. All he did was redo the timeline for departure.
But while the decision to withdraw was consensual, its execution was marred by big mistakes — mistakes for which Biden and his administration must answer. First, there is the firmness of the deadline. By fixing the symbolic date of Sept. 11, marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks rather than tying the withdrawal to a series of conditions that had to be met, it forced the military to orchestrate the withdrawal right in the middle of fighting season, which was in the Taliban’s favor.
Then there is the sequencing of the operations. The decision, hard to understand, to evacuate members of the military before civilians proved to be catastrophic when Kabul fell and forced the Pentagon to send 6,000 troops into danger in order to hold the airport. There is also the absence of consultation with European allies, who are nonetheless involved. And finally, the errors in judgment when it came to how quickly the Taliban would advance.
Despite his reputation for empathy and compassion, Biden seemed particularly without these qualities when the crisis began and dramatic images of evacuations flooded our screens. His people are already evaluating this fiasco’s impact on his popularity and that of the Democratic Party. The most pressing thing, however, is to continue with evacuations from Kabul in a manner worthy of the world’s largest power.