No one in the White House when George W. Bush was president could have imagined that, 20 years later, the hateful terrorist Osama bin Laden would be the posthumous victor of war.
It will be difficult for Joe Biden’s presidency to distance itself from the tragic and excessive events of this August: a military defeat; a waste of lives and resources squandered during 20 years of useless war and a failed project to create democracy; a last minute withdrawal, hurried and chaotic; and, finally the arrival of plastic bags containing the bodies of 13 soldiers at Kabul’s airport who lost their lives, exactly what the president wanted to avoid when he ordered such a hasty exit.
In the mirror of history, reflections of previous tragedies accumulate. An immediate and unexpected defeat inherited from the previous presidency, similar to the defeat John F. Kennedy suffered in 1961 after only three months in office with the planned anti-Castro landing at the Bay of Pigs. The photo of the shameful evacuation from Saigon in 1975, the result of wrong decisions by Lyndon B. Johnson and the dishonest brokering by Richard Nixon to avoid reaching a peaceful settlement during the election campaign that made him president. The devastating attack in Beirut in 1983, which killed 241 United States soldiers, but did not affect the reelection of Ronald Reagan as president in 1984.
The cruelest defeats give rise to the most unexpected energy, which is what happened to George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, when the seeds were sown for the errors which have now born fruit. Although all four presidents have unequal parts in the crop of defeats, it was Biden’s share that, in the end, was the most delicate and risky. After all, in war there are no good defeats and no easy retreats. On the contrary, experts say they are the most difficult maneuvers in any battle and any war.
Biden’s errors are added to those made by Donald Trump, and to those of his predecessors Barack Obama and Bush, and can be boiled down to two: abandonment of the enormous Bagram Air Base, 70 kilometers (approximately 43 miles) from Kabul at the beginning of July in the middle of the night and without warning; and Trump’s decision to set the final withdrawal date for all troops on May 1, a date that Biden postponed to Sept. 11. Without the Bagram Air Base, the United States lost a strategic tool for leaving Kabul in an orderly fashion as the Taliban entered. Because the exit date coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack, it acted as a bugle call to attack for the Taliban, which launched their triumphant summer offensive.
Nobody in the White House when Bush was president could have imagined that, 20 years later, the hateful terrorist Osama bin Laden would be the posthumous victor of the war he himself started. Obama, who approved the order to kill bin Laden, could not have imagined it either. Or Trump, the president who wanted to win all the wars and ended up reaching a singular peace deal with the Taliban because, in the end, Trump only wanted to win reelection. Unlike the other presidents, and thanks to his family history, Biden has a tragic sense not only of the past but of life. Yet it is not certain that having such understanding will help him right now, when the commander in chief needed to provide for a successful resolution and not provide comfort.
Without Trump, we cannot understand Biden. Robert Gates, who had the unusual distinction of being named defense secretary by Obama after serving as defense secretary under George W. Bush, said in his 2014 memoir that he considered Obama to be “a man of integrity,” but “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Among the documents rescued from bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after the 2011 attack in which the al-Qaida founder was killed, were orders directing the terrorists to attack Obama but save the life of his successor, then Vice President Biden, a man bin Laden considered “totally useless for the post, which would send the United States into a crisis.”
Trump, who ultimately more than complied with bin Laden’s demands, evaded congressional oversight of his decisions. Biden will not be able to. He and his team, the best and brightest when you compare them to the chaos that was the Trump administration, will have to provide an explanation. Nothing is set in stone nor can be explained as the reason for ruin or the end of the war. Looking ahead to the midterm elections in November 2022 and the presidential election in 2024, in which Biden is unlikely to run given that he will be 82, domestic policy achievements will matter, including resolving the pandemic, the state of the economy, the creation of jobs, immigration control, preserving the freedom to vote — issues that will matter more than foreign policy, and which will be decisive in setting America’s international image and, above all, Biden’s legacy. And the right decision to withdraw, despite its terrible execution, could even end up weighing in favor of this ruined presidency.