WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden announced last month he would pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August, he declared “speed is safety.”
But the breakneck pace at which Taliban militants have overrun the country is not only raising questions about Biden’s plans for withdrawal, it’s also testing his foreign policy promise of “America is back.”
“Where Biden is going to pay a bigger price is in terms of international credibility,” said Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
“A collapsing Afghanistan badly undercuts his message of renewed American leadership,” Afzal said. “And it’s not only the decision to withdraw that undercut that message, but the administration’s muted and disconnected response to how fast things are unraveling in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban’s swift march across Afghanistan has forced the U.S. to dispatch thousands of troops to help evacuate U.S. Embassy personnel, leaving behind beleaguered Afghan forces left to confront an insurgency that has quickly sparked a humanitarian crisis and raised questions about the president’s foreign policy promise of “America is back.”
Biden has been resolute about his decision to end to America’s “Forever War,” telling reporters earlier this week he had no regrets about his decision even as Taliban fighters continued to snap up more of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. The militant group inched closer to the seat of power, Kabul, on Friday after seizing control of the country’s second- and third-largest cities, Herat and Kandahar.
While administration officials predicted a Taliban resurgence, the dramatic move by the Pentagon underscores the implications of the risk Biden has taken in his long-held desire to bring an end to America’s longest war.
‘America is back’ or is it?
The president used his maiden trip abroad to Europe in June to trumpet the message “America is back” after four years of former President Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, cementing partnerships with western allies as part of a broader strategy to blunt the rise of China.
While European allies are so far supporting the rapid withdrawal, there may be some cost to U.S. standing in the region, said Gerald M. Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
Feierstein said the administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal, along with its decisions to end its combat mission in Iraq and move Patriot anti-missile batteries out of Saudi Arabia in recent months may be seen as a “declining willingness of the U.S. to maintain commitments for their security.”
That could have bigger implications when it comes to the other foreign policy priorities like Biden’s aim to return to the Iran Nuclear Deal, he added.
But while foreign allies understand the politics of Afghanistan and the shift in America’s interests, the withdrawal’s chaotic unfolding may stand to benefit Russia and China – which Biden has labeled the biggest foreign policy threats facing the U.S.
Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said the “haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan could eclipse Biden’s other foreign policy accomplishments” in the years ahead.
“Russia and China are going to build this into their narratives to support their contention that the United States is not reliable and that perhaps the world should look to other countries for leaders,” he said. “That will be much more damaging and long-lasting than concerns over whether our major allies trust our commitment to them.”
Biden has stood firm on his decision to leave Afghanistan, a view he has held since he was vice president under former President Barack Obama. Though he voted in favor of the 2001 authorization for the use of military force that triggered the war as a senator, Biden was one of the most vocal critics of further escalation in Afghanistan during the Obama administration and opposed the decision to surge troops there in 2009.
The White House insists it will continue to provide close air support, food and equipment and pay military salaries but Afghan leaders ultimately shoulder the burden.
“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” Biden told reporters earlier this week.
Some observers note the fact that Afghan forces have been quickly overwhelmed despite 20 years of training and support justifies Biden’s decision to withdraw.
Jack Weinstein, a former Pentagon official and an expert on international security, called Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan “extremely courageous.”
“This president had two decisions to make, and those are the decisions that all his predecessors had to make: Do you stay in Afghanistan forever? Or do you cut your losses and move on to what is something more strategic and vital to the United States?” said Weinstein, now a professor in Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
The Defense Department’s national defense strategy released in 2018 suggested the U.S. needed to focus its attention on China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. But, “you can’t focus on all those other activities when you’re mired in Afghanistan,” Weinstein said.
Others say the Afghan military was designed with the expectation of U.S. reinforcements and airpower.
Feierstein, who served as country director for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh at the State Department from 2000 to 2003, said there was a debate at the time about whether it was a mistake to create a military establishment in Afghanistan that was predicated on then notion the U.S. would be a major financier for equipment and resources.
“Clearly the decision went the other way, and we created the military we created,” he said. “I think it’s not as simple as saying, ‘we’ve invested all of this and why are you guys not fighting?’ It’s actually not quite fair to the Afghans.”
Jacobson said the U.S. never took training as seriously as combatant military action.
“We tried to create an army in our image, like the U.S. Army, instead of an army that needed to combat an insurgency,” he said. “This is about the right kind of training.”
Criticism mounts as the Taliban encroaches on Kabul
Hawkish Republicans have seized on the unraveling security situation in Afghanistan, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, who called Biden “completely blind to the consequences his decision has on U.S. national security.”
“President Biden’s strategy has turned an imperfect but stable situation into a major embarrassment and a global emergency in a matter of weeks,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday. “President Biden is finding that the quickest way to end a war is to lose it.”
Other Republicans, like former Michigan congressman Justin Amash, said the Taliban offensive is evidence of why it’s time to leave.
“The Taliban’s rapid gains in Afghanistan underscore the futility of permanent occupation,” Amash tweeted. “The United States wasn’t able to meaningfully shape circumstances through 20 years of war. We’d have seen the same results had we pulled out 15 years ago or 15 years from now. End the wars.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has requested an all-members briefing on Afghanistan from the Biden administration when lawmakers return the week of Aug. 23, according to a Pelosi aide, a tacit acknowledgement that some within Biden’s own party are raising questions about the way in which the U.S. left the country.
Trump, who struck a deal with the Taliban and set a deadline for U.S. withdrawal, took a swipe at his successor’s decision. The former president said if he were still in power, he would have ensured a “conditions-based withdrawal.”
“I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable,” he said in a statement Thursday. “It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that better than anyone.”
That criticism has been hard to square given that Biden actually delayed the original deadline set by Trump, which was to pull all troops by May 1.
“The Trump administration started this problem in the immediate sense,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They did a deal in 2020 that promised we would leave,” Biddle said. “Biden didn’t make that decision. He didn’t change it, which I think he should have. But he didn’t make it. Trump did. So it’s hard for Trumpy Republicans to come out foursquare against the withdrawal when their hero wanted the same thing.”
Traditional Republicans may not be happy with the withdrawal of troops, “but they’re not the vanguard of the party,” Biddle said. “And the American public, generally speaking, has not been supportive of the war for a long time now. … The domestic political effects of this on the administration will be modest, but negative.”
Weinstein suggested Biden should push back against Republican opposition to his Afghanistan policy by channeling Trump.
“I would almost play the former president’s card, which is, ‘I need to think about America first, and I can’t keep sending America’s sons and daughters into a failed state,’ which is exactly where it was going,” he said.
The cost at home
While the decision to withdraw raises questions about U.S. commitments abroad, the fallout at home could be have a bigger impact, according to Feierstein.
The majority of Americans are behind Biden’s decision. A July survey found that seven in 10 Americans support ending the war in Afghanistan, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted in late July found that 55% of Americans supported Biden’s withdrawal.
But the fighting has triggered a humanitarian crisis that has played out on televisions across the country, with images of tens of thousands of displaced Afghans forced to flee their homes and observers fearing a violent future for women and children under Taliban rule.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed amid the offensive over the past month, according to the UN. The children’s agency Unicef issued a statement earlier this week warning of the violations against children, noting “the atrocities grow higher by the day.”
“While there may be some short-term damage to the U.S. status in the region, here at home the response will be emotional, and an emotional response is much harder to fix,” Feierstein said. “There might be a sense that we could have done it better, we could have done it differently, and it will always be on Joe Biden’s watch that the whole thing fell apart.”
Others say the decision takes a bigger toll abroad. Jacobson said his conversations with those on the ground in Afghanistan have been defined by “near panic.”
“There’s a view amongst folks that it’s only a matter of days or weeks,” he said of the specter of the Taliban toppling the government. “This is not an issue that’s going to make or break Biden’s electoral chances.”
For most Americans, the collapse of Afghanistan probably won’t be a central issue impacting Biden’s approval rating, “but it’s going to hurt,” Biddle said.
“The war had been invisible for many, many years,” Biddle said. “Certainly since early in the Obama administration, this war has been almost invisible in American domestic politics. A catastrophe makes it front-page news.”
Courtney Subramanian and Michael Collins cover the White House. Follow Subramanian on Twitter @cmsub and Collins @mcollinsNEWS.