Editorial: On Biden’s watch, America’s righteous war in Afghanistan ends in defeat

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

President Joe Biden was nowhere to be seen in the first 48 hours after his administration’s record was tainted, probably permanently, by the catastrophic intelligence failure that handed victory to the Taliban in Afghanistan. His decision to break away from his Camp David vacation and finally speak to the nation Monday afternoon was a disappointing attempt at damage repair for a withdrawal debacle that has bruised the national ego and shredded America’s image abroad.

Biden will have trouble living down the embarrassment of having confidently declared barely six weeks ago that the U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t produce another Saigon — scenes of Vietnam chaos as military helicopters lifted people off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in 1975. Biden also asserted on July 8 — again with complete confidence — that the 300,000-strong Afghan military would be able to hold its own and fend off a Taliban attempt to seize major cities. The chances of a Taliban takeover, he said, was “highly unlikely.”

Well, he couldn’t have been more wrong, and he deserves to be reminded of it again and again by his Republican critics. Biden’s credibility was shot long before he finally addressed the nation on Monday. He tried to blame others, even to the point of outright misstating the facts when it came to peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. The Taliban, from the beginning, refused to talk with the government. Biden chose to honor an agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban knowing it was deeply flawed and completely excluded the Kabul government from the process — ensuring that government’s eventual defeat.

On Biden’s watch, what should have been an honorable and organized transition of military control to an elected Afghan government instead turned into a wholesale, humiliating retreat. After 20 years of war, 2,354 U.S. military deaths and more than $1 trillion in U.S. taxpayer expenditures, Biden has handed control of Afghanistan to a ragtag Taliban army that made its name in the 1990s by hanging accused adulterers and female rape victims, banning women from the workplace, forbidding girls to attend school, and punishing anyone caught listening to music.

This on top of having hosted the al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This is Biden’s Jimmy Carter moment — an open display of American weakness and incompetence. For Carter, it was the humiliating takeover by Iranian militants of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the ensuing 444-day hostage crisis. On Carter’s watch, an attempt by U.S. special operations forces to rescue the hostages ended in even more embarrassment and failure. Once Carter left, Americans didn’t allow another Democrat to occupy the Oval Office for the following 12 years.

The scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport were worse than Saigon.

Thousands of desperate Afghans stormed the tarmac, clinging desperately to the landing gear of a mammoth military cargo plane and trying to ride atop the wheel wells as the plane taxied. Left stranded in the chaos were tens of thousands of Afghans — translators, clerical workers and other employees — who risked their lives to support the U.S. mission. Biden asserted that many stayed of their own accord, choosing not to give up on their country. That is pure balderdash. They are now in hiding because they know they’re being hunted by the Taliban.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier made feeble attempts to defend Biden by pointing the finger of blame at others and deflecting attention from the Saigon comparison.

The hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who fought in Afghanistan now have little or nothing to show for their sacrifices. Biden’s argument that the continued U.S. military operation was too dangerous is disingenuous at best. U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan from 2015 through 2020 averaged 16.5 per year. Far more troops have died in car accidents than on deployment in Afghanistan since 2015. Yet it was the continued U.S. military presence that fended off the Taliban during that entire time.

And despite Biden’s claims to the contrary, Afghan troops did, in fact, stand up and fight as long as they knew U.S. troops and air support had their backs. Their performance was far from stellar, but it was improving markedly.

Taliban commanders learned the hard way in 2001 that they would pay a heavy price for challenging U.S. military superiority. So they retreated to safe havens in Pakistan, knowing that if U.S. history were any indication, the American public would eventually grow weary of this mission, no matter how righteous the cause. President George W. Bush provided them with an unexpected boost in 2003 after he ordered tens of thousand of troops stationed in Afghanistan to deploy to Iraq.

By 2005, troops still in Afghanistan were openly showing signs of demoralization, feeling that Americans had forgotten them. Afghan officials began questioning the U.S. commitment to their survival. America’s NATO allies also worried that the importance of preventing a resurgence of terrorist havens in Afghanistan had taken a back seat to fighting a war in Iraq launched under false pretenses with no end goal in sight.

The Obama administration briefly surged troops to shore up the Afghanistan mission, only to lose interest and pull back. President Donald Trump bizarrely declared that Taliban leaders were committed to peace. He opened talks with them while excluding the Afghan government from participation. The signal was unmistakable: Afghanistan was the Taliban’s for the taking.

Corrupt Afghan officials, meanwhile, found ways to pocket U.S. civilian and military aid without adequately supplying front-line troops with food and ammunition. Troops who wanted to keep fighting correctly discerned that it wasn’t worth risking death to defend a corrupt regime while the troops starved in the field. The final blow came when U.S. military contractors pulled out as soon as they realized they had no backup. Without their support repairing military aircraft and providing logistical support, the Afghan military collapse was inevitable.

Just because Biden inherited the badly flawed Trump peace deal didn’t mean he had to honor it, especially by imposing an unrealistic and artificial timetable of completing the withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It didn’t have to end this way, but Biden stubbornly insisted on it. Which is why he now owns this humiliating defeat.


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