Forced to confront bipartisan anger over the bungled U.S. exit from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden instead gave a speech on why drawing down U.S. troops after two decades war was in the American interest.
In so doing, he missed the point.
Americans aren’t troubled by the withdrawal policy – a majority support it – they are upset by the execution of the exit that occurred on his watch. They did not want to see Afghan allies executed as city after city were overrun. They didn’t want to see desperate Afghan civilians clinging to a C-17 military jets, some falling to their death as planes lofted to the sky. They didn’t expect the capital to fall in six days. And they didn’t expect to hear a top U.S. general warn terror attacks may once again launch from Afghanistan, threatening America.
In his nationally televised speech, Biden made one concession most Americans would agree with: his administration was caught off guard that Afghanistan fell to the Taliban even before the U.S. could get its diplomats, Afghan loyalists and troops out safely.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden told Americans, while insisting he sticks by his withdrawal decision.
The rest of the speech, however, failed to address the bungled exit with specificity and served as a reminder that – as The Washington Post declared in a front-page article last year – Biden has been “maddeningly inconsistent” on Afghanistan.
He opposed in 2009 the military surge that military leaders proposed, and President Obama authorized, one now widely credited with quieting the insurgency that killed numerous soldiers with IEDs and blue on green attacks from 2007 to 2010.
Biden also opposed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a mission cheered by Americans. And he overruled his own commanders this summer when he abruptly shut down the U.S. air base in Bagram when military leaders were arguing to keep a small contingent of U.S. troops in country beyond September. That decision looks more consequential with the chaos now at the Kabul civilian airport.
For most of his speech, Biden sounded the same ending endless war principles that his predecessor Donald Trump advocated. In so doing, he revised his own personal history, most importantly when it came to using the military for nation building.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy,” the president said Monday.
That statement ignored an important reality: Biden as a U.S. senator co-sponsored the first multibillion nation-building legislation for Afghanistan in 2002, insisting building a stable country and government was essential.
“Perhaps the most important question, however, is one of commitment,” Biden argued in sponsoring the law. “Will we stay the course and build security in Afghanistan, or will we permit this country to relapse into chaos?” He compared nation-building in Afghanistan as important as the U.S. effort known as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
“After World War II, America used its soldiers as peacekeepers and its dollars as peacebuilders. This may have been the wisest investment of the past century: We turned our most bitter foes into our staunchest allies.” he said. “But if we’re going to talk about a new Marshall Plan, we should be willing to back up our words with deeds. The original Marshall Plan cost $90 billion in today’s dollars. Our total pledge for Afghan reconstruction is less than 1 percent of that, and we’ve only delivered a fraction of this pledge.”
A year later, Biden doubled down on nation building as essential to preventing chaos in Afghanistan, even as some Bush administration and conservatives questioned such a mission.
“Just two months ago, the President signed the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002, and Senator Hagel and Senator Lugar and I cosponsored that,” Biden crowed at a February 2003 Senate hearing. ”It was pushed forward by this committee, and we finally got it passed. But the act authorizes $3.3 billion for reconstruction and security of Afghanistan over and above the funds the President might see fit to allocate from other sources.”
Biden, then-the-ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, directly endorsed nation building during the hearing, recounting what local Afghans told him was necessary for success during a trip to the war-torn country.
“In some parts of this administration, ‘nation-building’ is a dirty phrase,” Biden argued. ”But the alternative to nation-building is chaos–a chaos that churns out bloodthirsty warlords, drug-traffickers, and terrorists. We’ve seen it happen in Afghanistan before–and we’re watching it happen in Afghanistan today.”
In his speech Monday, Biden also hailed the killing of bin Laden without noting he opposed the mission under Obama.
He suggested he had no choice but to follow the withdrawal plans started by Trump, even though he has reversed nearly every other approach Trump left behind, from the border to the budget.
Biden also declared he was “moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every contingency, including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now” without noting he overruled his military leadership on keeping a small military presence in Afghanistan this fall. He also failed to note the U.S. departure of the Bagram air base was done so awkwardly Afghan commanders felt blindsided.
Aside from truth and consistency, the long-term consequences of Biden’s approach and the chaotic fall of Afghanistan may be far more severe. A top general warned over the weekend Afghanistan could quickly become a terrorist haven capable of striking America again.
And on Monday, competitors like China used the Afghan debacle to sow doubt about America’s commitment to allies like Taiwan.