August 20, 2021 | Washington Examiner
August 20, 2021 | Washington Examiner
Responding to the disastrous fallout of his Afghanistan withdrawal, President Joe Biden declared that the “buck stops with me” — and then spent the rest of his first public address on the crisis shifting blame and proffering the same flawed arguments that led us to this tragic point. We must scrutinize those arguments if we are to learn the lessons of these failures and avoid them in the future.
Indeed, Biden’s obviously incorrect statement that the Afghanistan withdrawal could not have been handled better suggests we have a lot of work to do.
To be sure, the U.S. government’s most important task at this point is completing the urgent evacuation of thousands of Americans stranded in Afghanistan by the incompetent implementation of the administration’s poor decisions. Any remaining time should be used to evacuate Afghans who worked with the U.S. government and who are confronting Taliban retribution.
Once those vital tasks are complete, we must resist the temptation to move on without self-reflection. There are many reasons for the catastrophe we are witnessing in Afghanistan, and we should seek to understand all of them.
That effort should start with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan based on self-delusions regarding the nature of our enemies there and the need for a continued military presence. To be clear, the failure has been a bipartisan one.
President Donald Trump embraced many of the same misconceptions, including the all-too-prevalent belief that forward-deployed U.S. military forces in the Middle East are often or almost always unnecessary or even the primary source of problems. That false premise leads naturally to the idea that U.S. military withdrawals are almost always the solution.
This “ending endless wars” narrative, long espoused by too many politicians of both parties, ignores the prudent admonition of former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta. We should absolutely scrutinize military interventions and how those interventions are conducted, but “we must also apply the same scrutiny to withdrawals,” Panetta wrote in December. “In doing so, Americans will find that some withdrawals can be equally deleterious to our national security, especially when the withdrawals are conducted precipitously and without clear preconditions.”
One simply needs to look to the 2011 Obama administration withdrawal from Iraq for an example. President Barack Obama, motivated in part by the sincere and misinformed advocacy of then-Vice President Joe Biden, pursued withdrawal based on a timeline and not conditions in the country — against the advice of his military commanders.
And what was the result of that 2011 withdrawal from Iraq? That decision catalyzed the rise of the Islamic State and culminated in a costly U.S. military return in 2014.
A decade after the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, Biden drew from the same playbook, and we are all witnessing the horrible results. In a bizarre twist of logic, Biden is arguing that the catastrophe his policy catalyzed in Afghanistan is evidence of the wisdom of that policy. The idea is that chaos was inevitable and that inevitability argued against keeping troops there.
This is absurd. When I taught at West Point, I might have flunked a cadet if he or she had attempted that logical maneuver in a term paper. The Afghan security forces, despite their many shortcomings, fought hard for nearly 20 years, with an estimated 66,000 paying the ultimate price to defend their country and fight our common enemy.
Some trend lines were troubling, but the rapid unraveling came after Biden’s April 14 announcement of the impending withdrawal. The psychological impact on Afghan security forces of the American abandonment (which started under Trump) and the denial of air support (by Biden) cannot be overestimated.
When Biden assumed office in January, we had no more than 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined. Compare that to a peak of 170,000 troops in Iraq in 2007 and approximately 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2011. Or compare it to 26,000 troops on Capitol Hill after Jan. 6.
The 8,000 U.S. troops in those three countries largely play (or played in the case of Afghanistan) supporting roles for admittedly imperfect partners bearing the brunt of the burden in confronting our common enemies. In Afghanistan, not a single American soldier had been killed in combat in a year and a half. The Taliban certainly would have increased their efforts to target U.S. forces if we had stayed, but that would have been difficult for the Taliban because most U.S. forces were operating in supporting roles for front-line Afghan forces.
And what strategic benefits were we accruing from that modest troop presence? We were preventing the resurgence of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria, while ensuring that Afghanistan would not be used again to launch terrorist attacks against us. In other words, with relatively modest levels of investment, we were helping brave partners keep pressure on terrorists there so they could not kill us again here at home. It was a disaster avoidance strategy.
It is interesting that the Biden administration now finds that argument, as least for the time being, persuasive when it comes to our military presence in Iraq and Syria but not in Afghanistan.
What explains that? Well, Biden essentially told us in his Aug. 16 address, and his words reveal the flawed premise on which he has built his disastrous policy.
Biden argued that we should “focus on the threats we face today, in 2021, not yesterday’s threats.” I completely agree. But then, he said the “terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan.”
That is interesting wording. If the president is saying that the terrorist threat has evolved over the past 20 years and spread far beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, that is certainly true. If he is saying there is little to no remaining international terror threat remaining in that region, such an assertion is dangerously false.
The absence of another 9/11 attack launched from Afghanistan is not an indication of the absence of a terror threat but rather that our 20-year strategy in Afghanistan, despite its significant shortcomings, was successful in accomplishing our core objective.
Biden was right to express concern about “al Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Nusra in Syria, [and] ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.” But the cascading consequences of the catastrophe in Afghanistan will make all of those problems more difficult. Terrorists in each of those areas will be more emboldened based on the defeat of the United States and our partners in Afghanistan. As we saw with the ISIS caliphate, success on the battlefield stokes terrorist radicalization, recruitment, and activity around the world. We should expect the same now.
Biden might respond, as he said in his speech, that “we conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have permanent military presence. If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan.” Setting aside the fact that we do have troops in Syria, that argument neglects the unique geographic challenges associated with Afghanistan, the value of having bases in the country, and the fact that the Afghanistan-Pakistan region remains an epicenter for terrorism. As a result of the withdrawal, we will know less about terrorist activity and be less agile and effective in our response.
Anyone who suggests otherwise has watched too many Hollywood movies and is not listening to the experts. “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” CIA Director William Burns said in April. “That’s simply a fact.”
Even before the events of the last month, more than 20 U.S.-designated jihadist terrorist organizations still operated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and many of them still seek to kill Americans and our allies. Those groups now feel triumphant and can spend more time planning and launching attacks. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community assessed in April that al Qaeda leaders will “continue calls for attacks against the United States and other international targets, and seek to advance plotting around the world.”
What does that broader argument regarding al Qaeda have to do with Afghanistan? Everything.
Americans should remember that the Taliban provided Osama bin Laden the hospitality he needed to plan and launch the 9/11 terror attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 innocent people. As rigorously documented by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s Long War Journal, the Taliban and al Qaeda have remained attached at the hip for more than 20 years.
The relationship between the two was so problematic that the Trump administration demanded in the 2020 agreement that the Taliban break with al Qaeda. Anyone who’s studied the two groups could have told the Trump team the chances of that happening were near zero. And sure enough, the Taliban refused, never complying with the agreement that Biden has used as a fig leaf for the withdrawal he wanted to conduct anyway. In the recent offensive, the Taliban coordinated with Tajik and Uzbek members of al Qaeda to seize control of districts and provinces in the north.
Accordingly, all the Trump negotiation with the Taliban accomplished was sidelining the Afghan government, enabling the Taliban to achieve the release of 5,000 prisoners (many of whom returned to the battlefield, of course), and giving the Taliban more than a year to tell provincial and district governors that they better support the Taliban because the Americans were explicitly committed to a date-certain departure. That fact partially explains the rapid fall of provinces that we witnessed this month.
Anyone doubting this relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda should review a June report issued by the United Nations, an organization not exactly known for its hawkish policy stands. “The Taliban and Al Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties,” the report found.
So, where does that leave us?
The Taliban-al Qaeda terrorist syndicate that brought us the 9/11 terror attacks once again enjoys a largely uncontested safe haven in Afghanistan — just as it did on Sept. 11, 2001. Except now, its fighters’ spirits are emboldened by the defeat of the United States, ranks are replenished with former prisoners, and arsenals are overflowing with new (largely American) weapons.
The United States confronts a dizzying and growing array of threats abroad that can strike Americans at home. As Panetta wrote in December, however, “withdrawing into a defensive and insular crouch here at home risks leaving Americans more isolated and more vulnerable to threats.”
In an interview, ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether he would keep American troops in Afghanistan past the self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline if that was necessary to evacuate all Americans to safety — essentially whether the commander in chief would abandon Americans in Afghanistan. Disturbingly, Biden struggled to answer that simple question.
If Americans don’t demand better from our leaders, we should expect more disasters in the future.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.