19 August 2021

The Atlantic: “Biden’s ‘America First’ Policy on Afghanistan”

This focus on narrow national interest is what Trump called “America First”. Biden would never use that term, not least because of its dark history as a World War II–era anti-Semitic rallying cry. And in contrast to Biden’s paean to fallen service members, Trump disparaged the war dead as “suckers” and “losers”. But their shared lodestar is the idea that it’s time for the U.S. to focus on its own interests—and to leave other countries to fend for themselves, come what may.

In particular, Biden blamed Afghans for the collapse of the government. He scolded the country’s leaders for fleeing the country and for refusing his advice about preparing for a post-American future. He accused the Afghan army of going down without a fight. The fact that the Taliban had so quickly overrun the government, despite two decades and astronomical American spending on training and equipment, he said, showed that staying in Afghanistan any longer would have been fruitless. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves, he said. It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. Additionally, although Biden often touts his work with Barack Obama, today he noted that he opposed the 2009 surge into Afghanistan that Obama ordered.

The implicit dismissal of the American role in creating the conflict is glib and cynical. Afghanistan is engulfed in a civil war—or was until this weekend, when the Taliban effectively won—but the U.S. was no disinterested third party. The war escalated with the American invasion in 2001, and Afghans have paid dearly for it, only to end up with the same group in control 20 years later.

David A. Graham

Hard to argue with this conclusion.

Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House
Evan Vucci / AP

The situation in Afghanistan was complicated to the extreme, and many hard truths coexist to form a dire picture for the country, and a muddy future for the world. While President Biden denied that the United States’ mission involved nation-building, for two decades many Afghans experienced a relative stability and freedom that is now being abruptly taken away. But the efforts of creating a modern democratic government were plagued by massive corruption, uncertain goals and strategic confusion, as investigations have revealed in the past.

I agree somewhat with the argument that a small US force could have sustained an uneasy equilibrium with a relatively small long-term investment. At the same time, the US military presence was providing the Taliban with an immediate common enemy, a motivation to keep fighting and a reason to recruit more adepts. A better compromise would have been to hand over operations to a UN peace-keeping force – but alas, apparently few in the US leadership still believe in alliances and international cooperation.

The comments from high-raking officials about being ‘surprised’ by the quick collapse of the Afghan government smell particularly hypocritical to me. This outcome was fairly obvious for anyone remotely following events: the Trump administration negotiated the withdrawal without consulting the nominal Afghan government; the US troops departed hastily, in some cases without notifying Afghan troops or their allies; Afghans on both sides of the conflict had close family and clan ties to each other, so capitulation avoided senseless bloodshed; others may have negotiated for their safety or accepted payouts to stand down. After all, when the person who first encouraged you to fight turns its back on you and leaves, who would not feel abandoned and demoralized?

Americans like to think of ourselves as having valiantly tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Afghans, so the narrative goes, just weren’t ready for it, or didn’t care enough about democracy to bother defending it. Or we’ll repeat the cliche that Afghans have always rejected foreign intervention; we’re just the latest in a long line.

I was there. Afghans did not reject us. They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for.

And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?

Sarah Chayes

Some in the intelligence community have already pushed back against these remarks, pointing out a rapid breakdown of the Afghan state was one of their scenarios, but was dismissed by political leadership. It seems to me that US officials hoped the fall would come late enough to dissociate this outcome from the withdrawal, counting on the short memory of the American public to escape the blame for this fiasco. The frequently repeated argument that public opinion is in favor of this decision is a flawed one in my view: not only do few people understand the consequences, but making critical decisions based on polling is not a sign of leadership, nor will it lead to progress.

The future implications of this short week may prove to be wide-ranging. The Taliban have succeeded where ISIS failed, establishing an Islamic caliphate, so despite their promises, it is difficult to believe they will not again harbor terrorists shortly. Afghanistan was already an important supplier of opium, and with no outside checks there is nothing preventing the Taliban from expanding this revenue source. This turned out into yet another conflict where US weapons have fallen into the hands of Islamists – even if the Taliban are not trained to use them or lack logistical support, I am sure their neighbors, from China to Russia, from Pakistan to Iran, will gladly buy them for a chance to examine US military technology.

Many discussions centered around the role of NATO in the occupation, and why did Europeans not continue without the US. It’s an odd remark in my opinion – Europeans have participated because the US invoked Article 5 of mutual defense, so if the country who was attacked back in 2001 considers the threat over, why would the others stay? It certainly didn’t help that President Biden failed to recognize allied support, or even the Afghan lives lost over the years – but after all, only American lives count, right?

I personally doubt the US would have invaded Afghanistan in 2001 if the terrorist attack would have happened in an allied country, not on American soil. The alliance has indeed a massive power imbalance that makes decision-making terribly one-sided, and many European capitals were critical following these events. Despite his rhetoric, President Biden seems to have decided many steps without consulting NATO allies, and even declined their communications after the fall of Kabul. I am reluctant to draw the conclusion that NATO would dissolve or suffer massive restructuring as a result, but it wouldn’t hurt for the EU to build up and cooperate more in this area of security and mutual defense.

Great power competition. Despite Biden’s claims that he wanted to exit Afghanistan in part to rebalance resources towards China, the loss of Afghanistan hurts the American posture in our competition with China. First, it deprives us of the only airbase (Bagram) and military presence we had in a nation bordering China, and also of our intelligence collection capabilities based in Afghanistan targeting western China—where Beijing is currently building a massive array of nuclear missile silos. Second, the loss of Afghanistan damages our relations with India. New Delhi will now face an Islamist regime in its own backyard coupled with potential instability in its archrival Pakistan. These new challenges will likely cause India to shift attention and resources towards managing the threats in its immediate neighborhood, and away from its partnership with the United States to counter China.

William Inboden

I think the immediate consequences will be felt in the attitude of US rivals such as China and Russia. As someone remarked, the lesson here for any US adversary is that, if you manage to resist long enough, the US will eventually grow tired and retreat, ceding victory to the other side. By abandoning Afghanistan women to the Taliban, the US lost the moral high ground in the fight for human rights. China will readily use this precedent to counteract criticism of its own human rights abuses, be it against Uighurs or Hong Kong activists.

On the military front, China may soon test the US resolve to defend Taiwan. It may be more strategically important in the Pacific region for the US, but by the flawed logic of public support, how long will Americans endorse a conflict over a far away island if China cuts all shipments of their precious iPhones? Russia may also start fresh incursions into Ukraine, the Baltic states, or Eastern Europe – will the US eagerly jump to our defense if that happens? Only time will tell…

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