Biden defends his Afghanistan actions

Some truths, some irrelevancies, and some falsehoods. How will voters receive it?

President Biden took to the airwaves to defend his handling of the Afghan crisis on Monday afternoon. The president’s approval rating has taken a sharp hit in recent weeks amid the chaos in Afghanistan and the surging Delta variant of COVID-19. When he spoke today, Biden desperately needed to project competence to the voters to stop the hemorrhaging of public opinion.

In particular, Biden needed to give a believable explanation for why the US military left behind more than 100 Americans who wanted to leave the country. That, more than anything else relating to Afghanistan, is an issue that will resonate with voters.

[You can watch President Biden’s speech in its entirety at the link below or read the official text version from the White House at this link.]

From the beginning of the speech, President Biden tried to claim victory for ending the Afghan war and the success of the operation that airlifted 120,000 people to safety in two short weeks. The president also saluted the US military and diplomatic corps for carrying out what he called “one of the biggest airlifts in history.”

A big part of the debate around the withdrawal centers on the date. Biden originally acknowledges that it was his Administration that selected August 31.

“In April, I made the decision to end this war,” the president said. “As part of that decision, we set the date of August 31st for American troops to withdraw.”

Biden then attempted to explain why the Afghan government and military fell apart in such a short time, saying, “The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban,” but that “turned out not to be accurate.”

Nevertheless, Biden said, he “instructed our national security team to prepare for every eventuality” so “we were ready” when the Afghan government and military collapsed.

With respect to the Americans left behind, Biden said, “Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan, with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan… After we started the evacuation 17 days ago, we did initial outreach and analysis and identified around 5,000 Americans who had decided earlier to stay in Afghanistan but now wanted to leave.”

Ultimately about 5,500 Americans were evacuated, but “we believe that about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave.”

The president went on to explain that “most of those who remain are dual citizens, long-time residents who had earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan.”

To me, this rings true. I do think that it is likely that some Americans made poor choices and waited until the last minute to decide to leave. The California students, parents, and teachers who knowingly went into a war zone as the US was in the process of leaving did a dumb thing. However, that does not absolve the president of leaving these people behind. At least 24 students are still believed to be in Afghanistan. It is not known at this point why the students were not evacuated.

Where is the line between personal responsibility and federal responsibility for protecting Americans who put themselves into harm’s way against the advice of the State Department? It is a very gray area.

I looked at State Department travel advisories to Afghanistan. On April 27, 2021, a travel advisory was posted with the title, “Do Not Travel.” The first paragraph starts, “Do not travel to Afghanistan” and the second says, “US citizens wishing to depart Afghanistan should leave as soon as possible on available commercial flights.” Even before that, two alerts were issued in March that contained the warning, “The Embassy reminds U.S. citizens that the Travel Advisory for Afghanistan is Level 4-Do Not Travel…US citizens already in Afghanistan should consider departing.”

I’m not arguing that the government has no responsibility for the Americans left behind, but I am saying that those people share a fair amount of the blame for their predicament. If, after five months of warnings and two weeks of evacuations, the stranded Americans couldn’t get to the airport, I’m not sure what else could have been done short of snatching them up in a commando raid. And I’m not even sure that the US military knew where these folks were to go get them.

Personally, it’s difficult for me to believe that the US military, which has a reputation for not even leaving the bodies of fallen soldiers on the field of battle, would willingly leave behind more than a hundred American civilians. It seems to me that if it were possible to remove these Americans, we would have done it. We know that the military and the CIA mounted operations to bring some stranded Americans inside the airport wire. We don’t know why others were not picked up.

The best alternative strategy that I can offer would be to tell the Taliban that we are not leaving until the Americans who want to leave are delivered to the airport. That strategy has its own pitfalls, however. These range from providing the Taliban with information on where Americans live and who they associate with to the possibility of escalating the situation while still not getting our people.

“The bottom line: Ninety [ninety-eight] percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” Biden said, adding, “And for those remaining Americans, there is no deadline.  We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.”

Biden said he believes that the Taliban will allow these Americans to leave, noting, “The Taliban has made public commitments, broadcast on television and radio across Afghanistan, on safe passage for anyone wanting to leave, including those who worked alongside Americans.  We don’t take them by their word alone but by their actions, and we have leverage to make sure those commitments are met.”

I don’t take the Taliban at their word here. And for good reason. There have already been reports that the Taliban is going door-to-door looking for Afghans who worked the Coalition forces or the Afghan government. It’s naive to believe that the Taliban will forgive and forget, but the leverage, including $9.4 billion in frozen Afghan government reserves, may make a big difference.

Next, Biden attempted to explain the August 31 deadline, saying, “Let me be clear: Leaving August the 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline; it was designed to save American lives.” As noted earlier, the president said that his Administration set the deadline.

Biden continued, “My predecessor, the former President, signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove U.S. troops by May the 1st, just months after I was inaugurated.  It included no requirement that the Taliban work out a cooperative governing arrangement with the Afghan government, but it did authorize the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders, among those who just took control of Afghanistan.”

This is all true, but it is also irrelevant at this point.

“The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1st deadline that they had signed on to leave by, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces, but if we stayed, all bets were off,” Biden said, adding, “We were left with a simple decision: Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens [sic] of thousands more troops going back to war.”

There is a mix of truth and untruth here. Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban did specify a May 1 withdrawal date and the Taliban had refrained from attacking Americans during the subsequent drawdown. However, Biden had arbitrarily extended the withdrawal date to September 11 and then moved it to August 31. The president was not bound by Donald Trump’s withdrawal date.

However, Biden may well be correct that extending beyond August 31 would have provoked Taliban attacks. It is true that the Taliban recently warned of “consequences” if the August 31 deadline was not kept.

The US could have retaliated if the Taliban attacked the evacuation effort, but that does not mean that the airlift could have continued. As I pointed out earlier this week, Hamid Karzai International Airport is located very close to Kabul. Arriving and departing airplanes would be very vulnerable to ground fire. Even worse than leaving Americans behind would be to have them die in a fiery plane crash on live television.

That may be why military commanders recommended “that the safest way to secure the passage of the remaining Americans and others out of the country was not to continue with 6,000 troops on the ground in harm’s way in Kabul, but rather to get them out through non-military means.”

Biden also offered an explanation for why the evacuation was not begun sooner and in a more orderly fashion. The president said that even if the evacuation had started months earlier, “There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission.”

Likewise, the president argued that staying in Afghanistan was not an option, again referring back to President Trump’s deal with the Taliban and the Hobson’s choice of either withdrawing or escalating to meet an expected “onslaught” from the Taliban.

“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?” Biden asked. “In my view, we only have one: to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.”

Biden argued that the US accomplished its goal in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and then overstayed as the al Qaeda threat “metastasized” to other parts of the world.

“The fundamental obligation of a President, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America — not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow,” Biden said.

To me, that sounded like another way of saying “America first.”

Nearing the end of his speech, Biden laid out his view of the foreign policy mistakes of his predecessors and what future presidents should learn from our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals — not ones we’ll never reach,” Biden said. “And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”

After 20 years of war, I think those recommendations will resonate with many Americans. In fact, the Trump wing of the Republican Party would and has cheered similar words were spoken by President Trump.

As he wrapped up the speech, Biden promised to continue pressing the attack against ISIS-K, to continue humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, to use American influence to protect our Afghan allies, and he honored the American soldiers who fought and died in Afghanistan. Many will argue that Biden is not sincere in his homages to the troops, but I believe that, as the father of a soldier, he is sincere.

One of the most striking moments of the speech was when President Biden spoke a simple phrase that I have not heard enough from recent presidents. Even though he repeatedly referenced Donald Trump’s Afghan policy, Biden categorically said, “I take responsibility for the decision” to order the withdrawal and evacuation. This is an uncharacteristically strong statement in an age where passing the buck and casting blame is the norm for politicians both parties.

Whether accepting the responsibility was a politically smart thing to do remains to be seen. The situation in Afghanistan could and likely will turn much uglier in the coming weeks. Biden’s buck-stops-here statement may not have politically astute, but it was the adult thing to do.

On balance, I think that President Biden helped himself with the speech. For most Americans, it was not the fact of the withdrawal that was the problem, but the way that it was handled. Biden pointed out that this was necessitated by the collapse of the Afghan army. Given the contention over the deaths of the 13 US Marines last week, I think it is unlikely that the country would have been happy with an Afghan surge to fight off the Taliban offensive, a surge that would have led to far more than 13 dead Americans.

While I’ve pointed out a few inaccuracies in Mr. Biden’s speech, I have not tried to fact-check it. I’ll leave that to the historians and investigative journalists. If it turns out that Biden has not been honest about the intelligence and advice given to him by military commanders, it could definitely come back to haunt him.

One aspect that may be problematic is the investigation into the collapse of the Afghan army. It is reasonable to expect that Afghan soldiers would not sacrifice their lives to give the US a few months in which to stage a dignified withdrawal, but the problem may go deeper than that. It seems that the Biden Administration’s removal of US government contractors may have left the Afghan military unable to mount serious resistance to the Taliban even if it wanted to.

But in the end, I don’t that will matter. America was done with Afghanistan and most of the country wants to put the war behind us.  

What will matter is if the Taliban starts to use those Americans left behind against President Biden. In leaving more than a hundred Americans in the hands of a violent fundamentalist group, the Biden Administration may have literally handed the Taliban the gift of a plethora of hostages. If Americans that we didn’t bring home, especially children, show up on the internet being tortured and executed, it would be impossible for Biden to overcome. This is true regardless of whether he could have gotten them out or not.

I’m also going to point out once again that everyone who says Biden is suffering from dementia or mental illness is jerking your chain. In the half-hour speech, he was lucid, coherent, sympathetic, and persuasive. Yes, he flubbed a few words, and yes, his policy is often wrongheaded, but the president is not the drooling idiot that right-wing media would have you believe.

Finally, on a personal note, there is one thing that we should all be able to agree on. Namely, that it is as annoying as heck when President Biden says “tolly-bon.”

Please, Mr. President, just say “tally-ban.”

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