President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan disaster is going from bad to worse. At least 13 American troops were killed Thursday in an Islamic State Khorasan Province suicide attack at Kabul International Airport, where U.S. and allied forces have been scrambling to evacuate personnel and dependents before the August 31 withdrawal deadline.
The Afghanistan withdrawal—a bipartisan concept supported by Biden’s two predecessors—will stand as a black stain on the president’s legacy.
The tragic scenes of Afghans falling from U.S. aircraft, American troops coordinating with Taliban fighters, and the victims of the Kabul airport attack will go down in history; a humiliating and bloody end to an unpopular and costly war.
Biden’s repeated gaffes on Afghanistan have not helped his situation. The president has at times been unable to stick to his resolute messaging, undermining his own policies with factual errors and inaccurate predictions.
It is unclear whether these mistakes are due to faulty or conflicting intelligence reports, routine errors on the finer detail of the war and withdrawal, his own personal proclivity for gaffes, or the prioritization of politics over facts.
Echoes of Vietnam
One of Biden’s most embarrassing missteps was his speech in July when he assured Americans that the Taliban would not quickly rout the Afghan government and force a humiliating withdrawal, akin to America’s defeat in the Vietnam War.
“The Taliban is not the South—the North Vietnamese army,” Biden said in the July 8 press conference. “They’re not—they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Ultimately, the Taliban took Afghanistan in two weeks—faster than the 1975 Spring Offensive in which North Vietnam overran the South. The Afghan collapse had many echoes of the fall of Saigon, including U.S. helicopters evacuating staff from the U.S. embassy, and civilians desperately trying to cram onto evacuating American aircraft.
Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan
Biden also appears to have misunderstood or misrepresented the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. On August 20,
Biden wrongly claimed that the Al-Qaeda militant organization was no longer in the country: “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with Al-Qaeda gone?”
Al-Qaeda is still present in Afghanistan, and the United Nations said in June that the group maintains a strong relationship with the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s Armed Forces
Trying to dodge U.S. responsibility for the collapse, Biden said this month that Americans “trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong.”
But this figure appears to also include the 118,628-strong police force, who did not take part in military operations.
Combined with the 182,071 members of the Afghan Armed Forces, the total official number of security forces was around 300,000. But even this could be an exaggeration of the true situation.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has noted that this number includes “ghost” personnel, non-existent, disbanded, or deceased units, often used as a way for local commanders to embezzle money from Kabul.
The BBC reported that the true size of the Afghan Armed Forces may have been as small as 50,000.
Afghan Failure to Fight
Biden was also criticized for accusing the Afghan forces of failing to fight.
“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,” the president said.
Between 66,000 and 69,000 Afghan troops have been killed fighting the Taliban, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, dwarfing the 2,442 American soldiers killed since 2001. Another 47,275 civilians have also died.
Biden has tried to frame the international intervention in Afghanistan as merely a counter-terrorism operation, rather than a long-term nation-building project.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy,” Biden said.
“Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland. I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism—not counterinsurgency or nation building.”
But the president’s past comments conflict with the suggestion.
In 2002 as a senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden asked: “Will we stay the course and build security in Afghanistan, or will we permit this country to relapse into chaos?
“President Bush has often promised that America will lead the way in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. His April reference to the Marshall Plan was particularly apt: After World War II, America used its soldiers as peacekeepers and its dollars as peacebuilders.
“This may have been the wisest investment of the past century: We turned our most bitter foes into our staunchest allies. But if we’re going to talk about a new Marshall Plan, we should be willing to back up our words with deeds.
“The original Marshall Plan cost $90 billion in today’s dollars. Our total pledge for Afghan reconstruction is less than 1 percent of that, and we’ve only delivered a fraction of this pledge.”
In 2003, Biden said that the “alternative to nation-building is chaos, a chaos that churns out bloodthirsty warlords, drug traffickers and terrorists.”
Biden said on August 20 he has seen “no question of our credibility from our allies around the world…As a matter of fact, the exact opposite I’ve gotten.”
It is true that no major NATO leader has criticized the president directly. Many American allies are running their own hastily arranged evacuations. The Afghanistan debacle does not look good for any of them.
But there have been clear rumblings of discontent in allied nations.
Norbert Rottgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party, said per Politico: “I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration…This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.”
On August 15, Rottgen wrote on Twitter: “Today is an immeasurable catastrophe. It is the result of the fatally wrong decision by the U.S. to rush to leave Afghanistan & our inactivity following this decision. A failure of the West with dramatic consequences for [Afghanistan] & our credibility.”
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the U.K. parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on Twitter the withdrawal “is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez. We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests. In Kabul we’ve failed our friends and ourselves. We need to think again, fast.”
Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defense committee in the British parliament, told The Washington Post: “How can you say America is back when we’re being defeated by an insurgency armed with no more than [rocket-propelled grenades], land mines and AK-47s?”
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the situation was “catastrophe for the Afghan people, for the Western values and credibility and for the developing of international relations.”
Joe Biden Keeps Getting His Afghanistan Facts Wrong – Newsweek