The President tries to duck responsibility for a calamitous withdrawal.
By The Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal Aug. 15, 2021 5:08 pm ET
President Biden’s statement on Saturday washing his hands of Afghanistan deserves to go down as one of the most shameful in history by a Commander in Chief at such a moment of American retreat. As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Mr. Biden sent a confirmation of U.S. abandonment that absolved himself of responsibility, deflected blame to his predecessor, and more or less invited the Taliban to take over the country.
With that statement of capitulation, the Afghan military’s last resistance collapsed. Taliban fighters captured Kabul, and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country while the U.S. frantically tried to evacuate Americans. The jihadists the U.S. toppled 20 years ago for sheltering Osama bin Laden will now fly their flag over the U.S. Embassy building on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Our goal all along has been to offer constructive advice to avoid this outcome. We criticized Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and warned about the risks of his urge to withdraw in a rush, and we did the same for Mr. Biden. The President’s advisers offered an alternative, as did the Afghanistan Study Group. Mr. Biden, as always too assured of his own foreign-policy acumen, refused to listen.
Mr. Biden’s Saturday self-justification exemplifies his righteous dishonesty. “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Mr. Biden said. But the Afghans were willing to fight and take casualties with the support of the U.S. and its NATO allies, especially air power. A few thousand troops and contractors could have done the job and prevented this rout.
Worse is his attempt to blame his decisions on Mr. Trump: “When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor—which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019—that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew U.S. forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.”
Note that Mr. Biden is more critical of his predecessor than he is of the Taliban. The President has spent seven months ostentatiously overturning one Trump policy after another on foreign and domestic policy. Yet he now claims Afghanistan policy is the one he could do nothing about.
This is a pathetic denial of his own agency, and it’s also a false choice. It’s as if Winston Churchill, with his troops surrounded at Dunkirk, had declared that Neville Chamberlain got him into this mess and the British had already fought too many wars on the Continent.
Mr. Trump’s withdrawal deadline was a mistake, but Mr. Biden could have maneuvered around it. He knows this because his Administration conducted an internal policy review that provided him with options. The Taliban had already violated its pledges under the deal. Mr. Biden could have maintained the modest presence his military and foreign-policy advisers suggested. He could have decided to withdraw but done so based on conditions on the ground while preparing the Afghans with a plan for transition and air support.
Instead he ordered a rapid and total withdrawal at the onset of the annual fighting season in time for the symbolic target date of 9/11. Most of the American press at the time hailed his decision as courageous.
The result a mere four months later is the worst U.S. humiliation since the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Taliban is saying it wants a “peaceful transfer of power” in Kabul, but the scenes are still redolent of U.S. defeat. The scramble to destroy classified documents. The helicopters evacuating U.S. diplomats. The abandonment into Taliban hands of valuable U.S. military equipment.
Worst of all is the plight of the Afghans who assisted the U.S. over two decades. Mr. Biden said Saturday that the 5,000 U.S. troops he is sending will help in evacuating Afghans and Americans. But there are thousands of translators, their families, and other officials who are in peril from Taliban rule and didn’t get out in time. (See nearby.) The Biden Administration was far too slow to get them out of the country despite urgent warnings. The murder of these innocents will compound the stain on the Biden Presidency.
The consequences of all this will play out over many months and years, and none will be good. The illusion, indulged on the left and right, that the U.S. can avoid the world’s horrors while gardening its entitlement state, is sure to come home to haunt. Adversaries are taking Mr. Biden’s measure, and there will be more trouble ahead. The costs will be all the more painful because the ugliness of this surrender was so unnecessary.