What a weekend! Tragically, Afghanistan now looks exactly like it did when we first went in twenty years ago, and it only took a matter of days. While we’d normally kick off the week ticking through a number of big political topics, for this issue, given all that has taken place there over the weekend, we’ll start and end with the fallout and the politics of Afghanistan.
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(cover image credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP)
Is Biden to Blame? Yes and No…
So, in the last newsletter, I included a link in our Afghanistan tidbit, predicting “Who Lost Afghanistan” would be the next big thing and that the Pentagon said a collapse would happen within 90 days. As I wrote that, I thought to myself “that probably means two to three weeks.” I now wish I'd written that, but still… I'd still be wrong. So here we are.
But we should focus on the politics of it since this is "Hacks on Tap." First the obvious, this is really bad for Biden. And the President’s clumsy speech to the country sure didn’t help. The truth is the debacle is both Biden’s fault and not Biden’s fault simultaneously. In the macro sense, the war in Afghanistan has been lost for a long time. With the Afghan governments we’ve had, it’s hard to think it was ever winnable. The Taliban fought for a cause, odious as it might be, but a cause its fighters were willing to die for. The Afghan Government army fought for wages. History shows that is rarely a winning hand. The true Afghani patriots, and there were many, were hopelessly undercut by factionalism, corruption and a national cultural identity that resonates most to repelling foreign invaders, especially infidels. So that long slide isn’t really Biden’s fault. In his speech to the nation, the President tried to claim credit for being the first to be honest enough to admit the lost cause. But the disaster now, is Biden’s fault. The lack of preparation and coordination with our allies on the withdrawal is staggering. The intelligence failure is breath-taking. Biden allies will point to Donald Trump for starting the disintegration of the Afghan Government, and they’ll be right. Trump cynically traded a slow-motion American surrender for a temporary peace from the Taliban. But the Biden administration’s clumsiness in the end game is a true disaster and he’ll pay a big political price for it. Unfortunately, his speech – which tried to claim credit on the macro end the war argument while eschewing most responsibility for the current fiasco – was a big error. He should have started the speech by taking full responsibility for the grave errors that took place on his watch. That might have helped the President start to dig out of this because the American people are ready for honesty on Afghanistan, not more political spin.
The answer is a simple and resounding “no” that Biden is not to blame for Afghanistan. We have been there for almost 20 years, have seen almost 2,500 service members killed, tens of thousands more wounded, countless Afghan civilians killed all while spending trillions of dollars, including $90 billion equipping and training the Afghans. That expensive army melted like a snowball in July at the first sign of Taliban forces without our troops involved. Would another decade have made a difference? A trillion more dollars? A thousand more American lives? Again, simply “no.”
Joe Biden has been rightly skeptical about the Afghan’s capacity to produce a functioning civil society capable of supporting a democracy. He’s also been skeptical that the Afghan National Security Forces could become capable of protecting that civil society or democracy against the Taliban, even with the training and equipment of our great military. Joe Biden opposed nation building in Afghanistan because he believed it wouldn’t work.
I watched Biden tell all of that to President Obama, the Secretary of Defense and countless generals and diplomats during 30 hours of meetings in the Situation Room in 2009 as the U.S. decided whether to add even more troops to Afghanistan. Twelve years later, it’s hard to argue he was wrong. Americans, long ago, grew tired of endless wars where few could tell you the objectives or the endgame and overwhelmingly supported getting our troops out.
Does Biden have to answer questions about the obvious and appalling lack of planning for this drawdown in the seven months he’s been Commander in Chief? Absolutely, he and his Administration do. They will have to outline what this means for the region and talk with allies about America’s role here and in the rest of the world. But, it’s hard to imagine we could have prevented the eventual collapse of the government without a significant investment in more American fighting forces and the political will for that has long ago passed. No small force of a few thousand troops would have achieved the status quo. This President inherited a war few supported any longer. However, the events of the last few weeks, and how poorly they were executed, will be something that occupies time inside the West Wing likely for the remainder of his current term in office.
Most Republicans, too, will have their own questions to answer for about getting out of Afghanistan. They can’t with a straight face (though they’ll try!) blame Biden for something Donald Trump committed to in February 2020 and wanted to do sooner than Biden. Trump was the President who convinced the Afghans to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, some of whom are likely holding rifles in Kabul as you read this.
To your point Murphy on the politics of this, I think getting our troops out of Afghanistan has been, and probably still is, enormously popular politically. It will be worth watching to see if the events and the pictures over the last week or so on the ground in Afghanistan change any of that and pushes people into their normal partisan leanings.
Lastly, I think the intelligence community has an enormous amount to answer for here. The idea that the collapse of the Afghan government was going to take months to happen seems ridiculous based on what has happened on the ground. It seems genuinely hard to say we had a good idea of what was truly happening there and the true capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces given what just transpired. Someone needs to answer for those bad assessments.
Well, whether it's Benghazi for Hillary, or the Iranian helicopter crash for Jimmy Carter, the foreign policy fiasco is always terrible for a President because it resets the narrative. And I think the Biden narrative will be reset from 40+ years of deep involvement in foreign policy to 40 years of deep involvement while being always wrong in foreign policy. That's bad news for the Biden Presidency. That said, I think the intelligence community has a lot to answer for. I was sympathetic to them during Trump's frequent and grotesque attacks, but any fair-minded observer has to see that this is not the first time they've gotten something really big, really wrong. Perhaps the most amazing thing is there are very few places in the world where American intelligence resources have been as deeply embedded as Afghanistan. Yet we knew so little going in and learned too little once there. Now, I think we're going to see - and we should see - a lot of new faces in the Biden foreign policy team and the ossified layers of the intelligence community, which badly needs a bipartisan and tough-minded shake up. The Washington CW echo chamber will start hollering for that, and in this case they’ll be right.
Lastly the pain is only beginning. This story is going to get bigger. The Taliban is going to make more trouble. They're going to be horrible stories of retribution and revenge for Afghans who helped us and took the Americans at our word. Still, none of that shame should be felt by those who fought there and worked there to help Afghanistan become free. Those heroes were asked to fight for our flag and for Democracy. This failure was never theirs, it was the leadership at the top, across both parties and at the institutions that make American foreign policy.
Credit: Anna Moneymaker, Getty Images News
The story and the pictures will absolutely get worse. I am glad Biden spoke to the nation today. As I Tweeted this morning, it is moments like this where the nation and the world have to hear directly from the President. And there will be questions that have to get answered and re-answered, especially around this evacuation. I thought most of his speech was very strong, outlining his longstanding opposition to nation building in Afghanistan. What was lacking, however, was taking more responsibility for the execution of our withdrawal. He will almost certainly do so in the future and should have started that more in earnest today.
But, in the end, I just don’t think the politics are going to be greatly impacted by this because I still believe a majority of the American people don’t know why we are still there two decades later and don’t think we should stay any longer.
It was important for Biden to reiterate why he made the decisions he made, what he sees for the future of Afghanistan and the region and, given the original reason we were there, how do we prevent al Qaeda from having a safe haven to plan attacks on us and the rest of the world. He must continue to actively shape this narrative or it will be filled with pictures and comments from others.
I do think the short-lived presidential campaign of Mike Pompeo will have a lot of questions to answer, too. As Trump’s Secretary of State, he eagerly helped cut a deal to get us out even faster than Biden did and, despite the attempted rewriting of history, the so-called agreement wasn’t a conditions-based withdrawal. So, I’m interested for the first press conference of Mike Pompeo and an explanation of what he was doing and thinking.
Yeah, Pompeo is toast. It’s over, if it even began. Washington will be in the cheap applause business now because politicians in both parties like foreign policy fantasies and there's going to be a countervailing fantasy that we could have held Afghanistan with 3,000 troops. The fact is since Trump essentially surrendered and the Taliban just waited. The Taliban followed the proven insurgency playbook, which is if you're willing to wait decades and be brutal and in light upon the bigger, stronger occupying power more pain than it can stand over time, you will win. The Taliban just rewrote the latest edition of that brutal and fanatical strategy. The other cost, of course, is the Biden foreign policy reset.
To end on a politically craven point, since we are Hacks. The lone potential bright spot for Biden in this otherwise very dark political moment is that since it shaking world conference in American leadership, the sane ½ of the GOP will find it harder not to play chicken with the debt limit. The stakes are higher now so my guess is the economic interests that the Republican Party respects and listens too are rattled; they will have little appetite for debt limited games with the full faith and credit of the United States.
We’ll leave Tidbits to our next issue and be back on Friday, if not sooner, with where the politics shakeout with Afghanistan and more.
See you then!
Murphy and Gibbs