Right or wrong, presidents take the heat for things that happen on their watch. President Biden pulled the plug on Afghanistan. And the recriminations followed.
Alexander the Great found what is now Afghanistan to be some of the most hostile territory he ever invaded. That’s about as far as he got. The Soviet Union struggled against the Mujahedeen after its invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan marked one of the U.S.S.R.’s most staggering defeats when Moscow reluctantly yanked out its troops in 1989. The Soviet embarrassment also foreshadowed what was in store two years later. The superpower disintegrated in 1991.
And now we have the chaotic withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan to add to the country’s tangled, convoluted legacy when it comes to foreign intervention.
No one has fared well in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is a seminal player to some of the most pivotal events of the past 40-plus years. The aforementioned Soviet invasion, the Soviet withdrawal. The dissolution of the Soviet Union.
U.S. support for the Mujahedeen evaporating after the end of the Cold War. The exit of the Soviet Union and the termination of American, proxy involvement fostered a power vacuum in Afghanistan. The pending void made Afghanistan the perfect host for Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to metastasize there. An abundance of arms, some of the most extraordinary topography on the planet, mixed with radical Islam, formed the perfect cocktail for Al Qaeda to engineer the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
So, if history is our guide, the strife associated with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan could emerge as another important moment in world history. We just don’t know which way the fulcrum of history tilts on this one.
Let’s study the near-term and the consequences for President Biden and Congress as the U.S. lifted troops from Afghanistan.
First of all, this should surprise no one that the most dramatic foreign policy event of the Biden presidency emerged during August. Beware the Ides of August, as we always say. Here we are. The weirdest, make-or-break political news almost always unfolds in August.
But the criticism of President Biden from Republicans on the withdrawal bears examination. It was President Trump who promised to withdraw from Afghanistan. So did candidate Biden. Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., wrote to the president in mid-February, urging withdrawal.
It’s natural that many Congressional Republicans are happy to upbraid Biden and relish the schadenfreude of the moment. After all, Republicans can conveniently attach criticism of the withdrawal to the GOP narrative about the president and Democrats: inflation/border/masks/crime/defund the police/Afghanistan. But the concept of withdrawing from Afghanistan dates back to the 2012 presidential campaign of then Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. His son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-K.Y., later picked up the withdraw and “endless wars” mantle.
Former President Trump promised to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan. So now that it happened, the former president fired off a fusillade of emails criticizing the Biden Administration. It’s not the way Trump would have done it.
Moreover, polls have consistently shown that a supermajority of Americans think that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan. But that support now appears to have slipped. And, after 20 years of lives, blood and treasure, what exactly does the U.S. have to show for this mission?
The bad news out of Afghanistan comes at a particularly crucial moment for the Biden administration and Congress. The House returns in just days to wrestle with the bipartisan, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion social spending package. Democrats are fighting internally over these bills. Focus on Afghanistan could lift scrutiny of the internecine fighting which awaits House Democrats next week. Democrats may actually appreciate that. Expect reporters to devote most of the news oxygen to behind-the-scenes briefings and the comments of lawmakers about Afghanistan as the House returns to session in the coming days.
But here’s the problem: Democrats were hoping to champion the spending bills as examples of their party accomplishing popular things for the public. Democrats were banking on positive messaging from the infrastructure bills as the touchstones of their 2022 midterm election efforts. But the way things look now, Afghanistan could bigfoot any positive spin those bills may generate.
Republicans will harangue the Biden Administration for what they term a ham-fisted withdrawal from Afghanistan. Congressional inquiries will follow as to the quality of the intelligence leading up to the withdrawal and if the administration followed it. Expect briefings and hearings in the coming days – and plenty of GOP press conferences.
But this is the conundrum that faced the Bush/Obama/Trump/Biden Administrations when it came to Afghanistan: how long does the U.S. stay? Should the U.S. even be in Afghanistan – relying on a calcified, 20-year-old, Congressional justification to invade the nation following 9/11? Was the authorization even compliant with the Constitution? Were the American lives and trillions of dollars the U.S. poured into Afghanistan worth it? Did it make a difference? How does one ‘prove a negative here? What terrorism attacks did the U.S. short circuit by invading Afghanistan and lingering for so long?
Moreover, Fox is told that U.S. military/diplomatic/intelligence sources warned lawmakers for weeks that they expected a rush by the Taliban. Few thought it may come quite this quickly. One source told Fox that they anticipated the Taliban to advance and then mount a major offensive after a cold fall and winter in the Hindu Kush mountains. They thought that the Taliban would really make major gains during “fighting season” following the spring thaw.
Any administration would have faced the following interrogative: How much longer does the U.S. stay? At what cost? And at what point must the U.S. let Afghans fight their own battles? If the U.S. had 20 years at this, either the American plan to prepare Afghans to defend themselves failed. Or, the Afghans were never dialed in enough to begin with. They lacked the will to fight.
But even if that’s the case, the withdrawal is consequential for the Biden Administration. Any decision regarding Afghanistan holds the potential to be a defining moment.
After all, history has shown that again and again when it comes to Afghanistan.