Four presidents share responsibility for the missteps in Afghanistan that accumulated over two decades. But only President Joe Biden will be the face of the chaotic, violent end to the war.
The president fought this reality on Monday as he spread the blame for the Taliban’s rapid and complete reconquest of Afghanistan. He pointed to a previous agreement mediated by then-President Donald Trump, expressed frustration with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and lamented the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces. Republicans overwhelmingly criticized Biden, and he found only a few vocal supporters among other Democrats.
The collapse of the Afghan government is the biggest foreign policy crisis in Biden’s young presidency, reminiscent of setbacks for former presidents, such as the withdrawal from Vietnam and the messy Swine Bay invasion of Cuba. The repercussions of the Taliban’s success were startling, threatening Afghan women and girls, posing new security threats and threatening to undercut global views on US reliability.
In the face of such devastating consequences, Biden admitted no guilt in the chaotic downturn and instead vigorously defended his move to leave a nation the United States has sought to protect since overthrowing the Taliban regime after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when it smoked. still rose from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
“Here’s what I believe in my core: It is wrong to order US troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not,” Biden said. “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons do you want me to send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war? I will not repeat the mistakes we made in the past.”
When Biden took charge, it was more to end the war than for the way it happened.
“I know my decision will be criticized. But I would rather take that criticism than pass it on to a fifth president,” Biden said. “I am president of the United States, the money stops with me.”
His steady tone differed slightly from just five weeks ago as he bullishly predicted what would happen as his August 31 deadline for retirement approached. He declared that there would be no repetition of the humiliating US evacuation from Vietnam nearly half a century ago, and “no circumstance of seeing people being lifted from the roof of a US embassy from Afghanistan.”
But Monday yielded devastating images from Kabul, competing with everything witnessed in Saigon.
Thousands of Afghan citizens, many of whom worked as translators and other aides to U.S. troops, thronged Kabul airport, desperate to escape the Taliban. In heartbreaking footage, some desperately tried to board a U.S. military plane flying in safety, attempting to crash alongside as it raced down the runway.
A few managed to cling to the plane before taking off, and video showed several falling through the air as the plane quickly gained altitude over the city.
The evacuation was condemned at home and abroad, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the latest developments “bitter, dramatic and horrific.” And security officials warned that Afghanistan would soon provide a safe haven for terrorist groups again.
The Taliban appeared to have total control of Afghanistan on September 11, just as they did on the date two decades earlier, when al-Qaeda terrorist attacks planned from its ground toppled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. The fallout from the 2001 attacks reshaped U.S. relations with the Middle East, and more than 3,000 U.S. and NATO forces died in the resulting fighting in Afghanistan during the manhunt for Osama bin Laden and beyond.
Under the command of President George W. Bush, US forces stormed into Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks in search of bin Laden while trying to disrupt al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out further attacks on the West. There was immediate success: the Taliban were overthrown, the terrorist group disrupted.
But after that came the grinding second phase of the war and a wave of troops from President Barack Obama in 2009. Although Obama later moved to reduce the number of troops, the amount of insurgency attacks and civilian causalities prevented a full downturn.
Trump was considering meeting the Taliban at Camp David on an earlier anniversary on September 11, only to step down from the idea in the midst of an outcry. But he announced that the United States would withdraw all of its forces by May 2021, an agreement that Biden complied with and delayed only slightly.
Efforts were made, at great cost, across all administrations to train and arm the Afghan forces when the United States traveled. But this investment of American blood, time and treasures proved useless as the Taliban conquered large parts of the nation without a fight and the President of Afghanistan fled the country as soon as the invading forces reached Kabul.
In the top ranks of Biden’s staff, the rapid collapse of Afghanistan only confirmed the decision to leave: If the meltdown of Afghan forces were to come so quickly after nearly two decades of US presence, another six months or a year or two or more would not has changed something.
His efforts to withdraw troops this summer, though polarizing in the national security community, had been praised by some on both sides of the aisle as timely and appropriate. But on Monday, Republicans were eager to criticize Biden’s decision and blame him for the chaos, even though many of them had supported a withdrawal when it had been proposed by Trump a year ago.
However, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had consistently spoken out in favor of keeping troops in Afghanistan, and he said the military briefings he attended suggested the Taliban would soon be able to regain power.
“I think the president had a great sense of this, of course,” McConnell said. “He neglected his own military leaders to do it, and he owns it.”
Biden has for more than a decade claimed that Afghanistan was a kind of purgatory for the United States. He found it corrupt, depending on the greatness of the United States and an unreliable partner who should fend for himself. His goal was to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, not to build a country, and his aides have pointed to polls – taken before the chaos last week – that show a majority of Americans are in favor of bringing troops home.
But the political game could prove risky as scenes of fear and violence from Afghanistan are broadcast across the globe, especially if the chaos in Kabul makes “Saigon look like Disney World,” warned Representative Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., A veteran. who served in Afghanistan.
“The bottom line is that there will be a lot of people who will be very let down by the United States,” Kinzinger said in an interview. “We will inevitably, inevitably be in conflict again somewhere. How do we convince the locals that we will follow up once we have left them in Afghanistan? ”
Lemire has been covering politics and the White House for the Associated Press since 2013.
Associated Press journalists Zeke Miller, Darlene Superville, Ellen Knickmeyer and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.