BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill
Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in a 2014 memoir that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” President Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the terrorist Taliban vindicates Gates’s grating assessment.
By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers, Biden must shoulder the blame for the international humiliation wrought on the United States by the terrorist capture of Afghanistan. There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the U.S. force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted over the weekend, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor, Donald Trump, left office.
The small U.S. force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Not a single American soldier had been killed in fighting in the past more than a year and a half, essentially because only Afghan soldiers were on the frontlines since the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan ended on Jan. 1, 2015. The residual U.S. force was essentially playing a supporting role.
Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice in April and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”
In fact, an unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April that, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Biden, however, refused to heed any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on U.S. and NATO capabilities — from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.
The irony is that Biden was facing no public pressure to quickly end the Afghanistan War. Contrary to the myth that the U.S. was tired of the war, Gallup polling over the past 20 years repeatedly found Americans to be more supportive than opposed to that military entanglement. The sustained public support to the longest war in American history was in stark contrast to previous U.S. wars, including in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, during which the majority public opinion at some point turned unfavorable, giving rise to antiwar movements.
It was only after Biden had effectively ended the Afghanistan War on July 1 (when U.S. forces secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Airbase, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country) that an American partisan divide over the war became distinct. In a July 6-21 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans (the vast majority of them Democrats) said the war was a mistake, while 46 percent said it wasn’t.
If there was any imperative for a rushed withdrawal, it was Biden’s woolly-headedness to honor a one-sided U.S. deal with the Taliban that Trump had bequeathed. The Taliban, Pakistan’s longstanding proxies whose brutal attacks over the years made them the world’s deadliest terrorists, had been openly violating the deal, so Biden’s sticking to it made little sense.
Indeed, Biden’s clinging to a blighted deal seriously compounded a U.S. pattern of undermining the elected Afghan government, including striking a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back and then forcing Afghan authorities to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists (a number equivalent to the size of two U.S. army brigades or regiments). The freed terrorists helped spearhead the latest onslaughts.
If Biden did not want to retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, he could have reduced their number to just 1,000 to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. That would have averted the disaster that has unfolded. But Biden, seeking to imprudently safeguard a deal that had already been wrecked by the Taliban, ruled that option out.
Last week, as one Afghan city after another fell to the Taliban and several senators and retired generals urged the White House to immediately employ military might to halt the terrorist militia’s further advances, Biden issued a statement on Saturday that proved the final nail in the coffin for a secular Afghanistan. By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, the statement led to President Ashraf Ghani’s escape from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul.
This background illustrates how U.S. actions unwittingly aided and abetted the terrorist capture of strategically located Afghanistan. As Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) put it, it is the Biden administration’s execution of the Trump-initiated exit strategy that “clearly, by any measure, has been a dramatic failure and stain on the United States.”
When the Taliban was previously in power, from 1996 to 2001, its brutal record, including destroying historic and cultural artifacts, evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979. The Taliban’s reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilize the region and come to haunt U.S. security.
Biden, the oldest American to ever assume the presidency, has lived up to the adage, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” In doing so, he has undermined America’s international credibility. The U.S. may not be able to recoup from the latest debacle.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).