Biden is Responsible for Afghanistan's Endgame, But He Didn't Lose the War
PLUS: A U.S. Open preview
After nearly twenty years, the United States has finally withdrawn its armed forces from Afghanistan. The end of that intervention has been many things: Chaotic, heroic, tragic, embarrassing, and humiliating.
The past three weeks’ swirl of events have made it hard for Americans to assess what they’re witnessing in Afghanistan. To get a better understanding of what’s going on, I for one think it’s best to take the long view on the matter, one that gazes back at least twenty years, if not more. I’ve written about that already: How the United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew its Taliban leadership in 2001 to destroy al Qaeda, got sidetracked and distracted by a misbegotten adventure in Iraq, ended up nation-building to justify our extended presence in-country (which turned into mission creep), finally eliminated Osama bin Laden in 2011, but then couldn’t find a way to withdraw from the nation without seeing our futile nation-building effort crumble.
In this view, what’s happened over the past three weeks is the inevitable result of invading and then remaining in a country that’s basically been in a state of civil unrest since 1978. That doesn’t mean the United States failed its core mission in Afghanistan—al Qaeda is less of a threat today and bin Laden is dead—but that any military operation that involved an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was always going to face long odds. With that said, I think it’s a misreading of the historical record for liberals to argue the United States invaded Afghanistan as some sort of imperial undertaking, or to slot the war there alongside Iraq and Vietnam as ill-advised operations. I also don’t think the hawkish argument that we should have stayed in Afghanistan as a stabilizing, nation-building force makes much sense either, since it’s now clear twenty years of nation-building and all the sacrifice that went with that only bought us a few weeks of a stable Afghan government and because that line of argument begins to lend credence to the aforementioned liberal claims about imperialism.
The advantage of the long view is that it provides context to the events of the past few weeks. From that perspective, the chaos at the airport appears as less of an isolated event than the culmination of something that’s been years in the making. The problem, though—and this has been bothering me for the past two weeks—is that it all too easily lets President Biden off the hook for what turned into a chaotic, deadly, and incomplete evacuation. It is true we got a lot of Americans and Afghans out of the country, but we also left many people and a potentially massive refugee and humanitarian crisis behind. American servicemembers died carrying out a hastily planned mission. As someone who has argued Afghanistan was bound to end badly for the United States, I still have the creeping suspicion that it didn’t have to end this way.
And one more thing: If Donald Trump had been in office when all this went down, people like me would have torn the guy in half. Just as Republicans would have tried to sweep Trump’s mismanagement of our final days in Afghanistan under the rug rather than calling for the president’s impeachment and removal from office as they are now, Democrats would have been outraged that Trump abandoned the Afghan army, left women and child at the mercy of the Taliban, and refused to do more to rescue the allies we left stranded at the airport. Yes, Democrats have been critical of Biden; they would have been merciless with Trump.
So the question deserves some attention: Where exactly did Biden mess up? It’s hard to tell in the fog of the moment. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and America’s NATO allies about who’s to blame and whose advice wasn’t heeded. People are covering their tails and blaming others. Those who warned of catastrophe are screaming “I told you so.” This is something a post-operational review and historians are going to have to sort out.
What does seem clear, however, is that the main players in the United States government believed and operated on the assumption that the Afghan military and government would have held onto power somewhat longer than they did. We’ll have to wait to determine if that was purely a delusion on our part or if there was something specific we did—such as withdrawing air support for Afghan troops—that hastened their collapse. Regardless, it was that rapid collapse that led to the chaotic situation at the airport.
Still, I wonder if we would have been prepared to evacuate those we needed to get out of Afghanistan even if Kabul had hung on for another six to twelve months. The New York Times reported the visa system had a backlog of 17,000 cases in January and that the U.S. embassy in Kabul was processing “at least” 100 cases a week through June, which doesn’t sound like an expedited process at all. What it sounds like is a bureaucracy following standard operating procedure on the assumption there is no need for urgency. Had Kabul not fallen until, say, the new year, we’d still only be talking about having evacuated a few thousand people before the Taliban arrived at the city gates, panic set in, and people flooded the airport.
Yet imagine what might have happened if the Biden administration had operated with urgency in evacuating people. Might the sight of a steady daily stream of refugees leaving the country have signaled to others that a Taliban takeover was inevitable, provoking a loss of faith in the government, mass desertion in the military, and a heightened rush to get out of the country, which would have been followed almost immediately with a rapid Taliban advance? What would have happened if the Biden administration had told our Afghan allies, “Now—not six months from now, when it may be too late—is the time to leave”? Would the Afghan army have fought a protracted campaign against the Taliban to allow those evacuations to take place? I doubt it. I guess I remain skeptical there was ever going to be an orderly retreat with a methodical evacuation.
That suggests to me that the Biden administration’s major failure was foolishly assuming the United States’ last days in Afghanistan would be orderly when their preparations should have accounted for the more realistic scenario, which was a chaotic one. I guess that’s maybe human nature: People tend to tell their bosses, “Hey, I got this under control,” rather than, “I’m anticipating the worst possible outcome and a situation FUBAR even though I have no idea what that may actually look like.” That’s the shelter simply “doing your job” provides.
I have two big questions then in assessing what happened. First, did Biden ask to be briefed on and did his principals prepare numerous worst-case scenarios concerning what could have gone wrong during the final withdrawal from Afghanistan? I would hope his team did not assume the United States’ last days in Afghanistan would be uneventful and unfold in accordance with a playbook they had drawn up that graphed order onto a highly volatile situation. I would also hope Biden’s team is not afraid to tell their boss that even a global superpower needs to prepare for the worst. To his credit, Biden quit believing the rosy assessments offered about Afghanistan before becoming vice president; hopefully he didn’t buy into one this time around.
Secondly, has Biden surrounded himself with the kind of “experts” who anticipate things will always go according to plan, or the kind who are nimble and creative enough to be able to operate when they don’t? There has to be a realization among government bureaucrats that events will often spin out of their control and that they need the flexibility to be able to account for that. Planning for the unforeseeable may seem ridiculous—who knows how events will actually play out—but doing so is good practice and at least keeps the mind loose enough to react when things go sideways. Biden’s success as a president will depend both on his team’s ability to carry out a plan and their ability to react to unexpected events. Preparation is important, but it only gets you so far. You need to be good at improvising, too.
Some critics will say Biden did have one other option in Afghanistan these past few months: He could have stayed and fought. Some have argued that if all it took to buttress the strength of the Afghan army were a few thousand US troops and some air power, then that’s a fairly inexpensive way to prop up the Afghan regime and keep the Taliban and any terrorists they may be harboring at bay. That perspective overlooks two key points, though. First, while the United States wasn’t suffering many casualties, the Afghan military certainly was, with the past two years the deadliest they had ever been not only for the Afghan army but at any point during the twenty-year Afghan conflict, period. Despite their effort, it wasn’t as though the Afghan army was gaining ground against the Taliban during that time either. And secondly, the Taliban have proven themselves to be a resilient fighting force for the past twenty-plus years. If the United States had again committed themselves to the defense of the Afghan government, it likely would have required more troops and more money, which is not something I suspect the American people would have rallied around in the year 2021.
Look, it is humiliating for the American people, who have been told repeatedly that they have the most powerful military the world has ever seen, to see their armed forces retreat in the dead of night from a city that had just been reconquered by a foe they had driven into the mountains some twenty years ago. Yet whatever blame Biden deserves for mismanaging the endgame, Biden does not deserve the blame for “losing” Afghanistan. In the first place, we can’t say Afghanistan was a total loss; we did achieve our main goals there. But more importantly, these alternative goals—keeping the Taliban from power while building a stable, western-style democracy in Afghanistan—were lost over a decade ago, not in the past month. Those who would tell you we were winning the war a month ago are not being honest with you; those who would cite the chaos at the Kabul airport to counter that claim are desperately searching for a symbol that can stand in for their lost cause. If anything, Biden deserves credit for doing what his predecessors couldn’t do: Putting an end to America’s involvement in the war once and for all.
Further reading: “Let’s Not Pretend the Way We Withdrew from Afghanistan Was the Problem” by Ezra Klein (August 26, 2021, New York Times); “Joe Biden’s Critics Lost Afghanistan” by Ross Douthat (August 31, 2021, New York Times)
Photo credit: Joe Biden Twitter page
Garbage Time: A US Open Preview
(Garbage Time theme song here)
The worst time for sports is August. At least this year we had the Olympics, but for the past two weeks all ESPN as been about is the Little League World Series (ugh) and pre-season football, which suuuuuuuuucks. I don’t understand why the networks can’t work with MLB to slap an adult baseball game up on primetime every night instead of airing reruns of some NCIS rip-off. It’s summer, just let us ride it out to the rhythms of the national pastime.
So it is with much relief that the U.S. Open has started. All-hours rock star tennis played under the bright lights of New York. I’ve heard if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Just kick back and let the tournament carry you from summer to fall.
On the women’s side of the draw, the big story was supposed to be Serena Williams, who is one Grand Slam championship away from tying the openly racist/homophobic Margaret Court for the record for all-time career Grand Slam titles. Unfortunately, Williams had to withdraw from the tournament last week with a hamstring injury. (She also had to retire from her first round match earlier this summer at Wimbledon with an injury.) Mother Time is not working in Williams’ favor. The last time Williams, who will turn 40 on September 26th, won a major was in Australia in 2017. She reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2019 but hasn’t gotten further than the semi-finals since. When she lost in the semis in Melbourne earlier this year, the way she exited the court suggested that may have been her last match Down Under. Four years ago, Williams looked positioned to shatter Court’s record; now we’re hoping against hope the greatest tennis player of all time has one more two-week run in her.
With Williams out, the focus has shifted to two-time U.S. Open champion and lighter of the 2020/1 Tokyo Olympic cauldron Naomi Osaka. As you may recall, Osaka defeated Williams in Flushing Meadows in 2018 to win her first major championship during a controversial match that found Williams earning a game penalty from the chair umpire for vociferously disputing two code violations she had received for receiving coaching from her box. Remarkably, Osaka maintained her focus throughout and pulled off the victory although the incident clearly left her shaken. Osaka would prove the championship was no fluke when she went on to win the 2019 Australian Open just a few months later.
This year, Osaka (now 23) made headlines when she withdrew from the French Open and then chose not to play at Wimbledon after refusing to talk to the media after her matches, citing mental health reasons. While her stand has brought attention to the issue of mental health in professional sports, it has also led commentators to dissect and evaluate her every interaction with the press. Listening to Chrissie Evert and Chris Fowler call her first-round victory on Monday, it seemed there was as much anticipation for her post-game on-court interview as there was for her game, along with an unfortunate pre-occupation with her state of mind. Sports journalists are still learning how to cover this issue.
The big story of the Open, however, is Novak Djokovic (pictured above) who is not only looking to break the record for all-time career men’s Grand Slam championships (he’s currently tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 a piece) but also record the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver did so in 1969. Despite getting bounced early from the Olympics, Djokovic remains the clear the favorite: Both Federer and Nadal—his most enduring rivals—are out with injuries. So is defending champion Dominic Thiem. That leaves #2 seed Daniil Medvedev (who had a memorable run to the finals of the U.S. Open in 2019) and Olympic gold medalist and #4 seed Alexander Zverev as his main rivals. (Maybe you’d want to count #3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas among the contenders as well, but he required some long bathroom breaks to get past a first round match with Andy Murray on Monday, so maybe not.)
Djokovic could leave the U.S. Open as the greatest men’s tennis player of all time, and at 34, still has a lot of majors left to pad his resume. Among younger players, Medvedev seems like the only one who might rise up to challenge him over the next few years. Most fans, of course, are rooting for Federer and Nadal to return to form and claw back a few of those championships, but that may not come to pass: Federer just turned 40 and looks diminished and hobbled, while Nadal, at 35, is still tough on clay but can’t match Djokovic on hard surfaces. No one would be surprised if either of those men picked up another major championship (especially Nadal in Paris) but the road to the finals is getting tougher for them every year.
Despite Djokovic’s current dominance, though, he’s not exactly a fan favorite. Federer’s dominance (he won 12 majors between 2003 and 2007) and his rivalry with Nadal had been well-established by the time Djokovic won his first major in Melbourne in 2008. Fans had already picked sides between Federer and Nadal when Djokovic (along with Murray) became part of the official Big Four of men’s tennis about ten years ago; for many, it seemed Djokovic had crashed what was already a good party.
Djokovic is also kind of hard to warm to. No one doubts his athletic brilliance. It’s just that there’s a kind of Tom Cruise-style kookiness to him. When he wins a match, he thanks fans by doing this weird invented gesture where he seems to thrust/heave the mass of his life force from his chest into the stands. I can’t recall any other human expressing gratitude in that fashion, but it’s Djokovic’s signature move and he seems to believe the crowd finds it endearing and meaningful. Additionally, in June 2020, Djokovic decided to host an ill-advised charity tennis tournament in Croatia and Serbia in an attempt to lift spirits during the pandemic. Instead, it became a super-spreader event and Djokovic and his wife caught COVID as a result. He has bristled at the tour’s health mandates and hopes vaccines won’t be made mandatory. His attempts to explain his beliefs concerning the virus often come across as either ridiculously naive or a weak attempt to make an indefensible position profound.
Regardless, Djokovic is standing on the edge of history. It’s worth reflecting on the streak of excellence fans of tennis have been witness to for the past twenty years. Serena Williams, of course, is a force unto herself. On the men’s side, since Wimbledon 2003, there have been 72 major championships, with Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic winning 60 of those titles. Throw in Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka and you add another 6 titles to that collection. Is that dominance a good thing? So long as they produce captivating finals matches, I’m not complaining.
But hey, we’ve got two weeks of fun tennis to watch. It’s not all about Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic either. If you can, make sure you catch a match featuring women’s #1 seed Ash Barty or up-and-coming American Coco Gauff so you can claim you were a member of Team Coco before she wins her first major. On the men’s side, Frances Tiafoe (like Gauff, a product of the DMV) has a fierce serve. I always love watching Gael Monfils play as well. And if you missed it, Nick Kyrgios is already out of the tournament; he got snippy with the chair umpire over towel placement or something like that and lost in straight sets Monday. At least with Kyrgios, his gripe was that he should have been able to throw his towels wherever he wanted because he was vaccinated. He gets a lot of grief on the tour, but right now, maybe we could use more of his particular brand of passion in this world.
Thanks for reading.
Photo credit: Novak Djokovic Twitter page
Exit music: “Just Like a Pill” by Pink (2001, Missundaztood)