Don't Excuse Biden for His Botched Afghanistan Withdrawal

You can both support withdrawal and recognize its failed execution.


President Joe Biden on Monday did something unexpected for a U.S. executive: In a press conference, he stuck by his promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. It's a speech that drew plaudits from anti-war advocates and scorn from the hawks. Yet in our hyper-polarized political landscape, we sometimes forget there's room for more than two camps, and that applies here: It is possible to champion our troop removal while criticizing the way it was done. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Biden's address made the case against nation building and regime change wars. Though the optics are messy, his decision to pull troops was the right one, he said. The speech took several pages from the anti-war playbook—rare rhetoric in the context of recent U.S. presidents, even as the war on terror has lost support. More than two-thirds of Americans want an end to the war in Afghanistan. Biden was confident, assured, and full of humility, wrote Reason's Eric Boehm.

But the president failed to fully grapple with the execution, which, most notably, has seen thousands of Afghans stranded after they risked their lives to help the U.S. win an unwinnable war. 

He did mention it, however briefly. "I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating civilians sooner," he said yesterday. "Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. Part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence."

That sounds fair enough: The situation is undoubtedly more complex than meets the eye. But it stops far short of explaining why, for example, 18,000 special immigrant visa (SIV) applications were languishing in a web of red tape far before the withdrawal began. That program was created by Congress to give an immigration pathway to Afghans—those who translated for U.S. soldiers and filled other critical roles in service to the Americans—knowing that they did so at risk of Taliban reprisal.

The result has been nauseating. Videos show a besieged airport in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, where people have been falling from the sky after trying to hold on to planes as they took flight. Afghans who helped the U.S. are now under threat of near-certain death at the hands of the Taliban. Some say the militant group is going door to door looking for traitors to the regime, and reports are already surfacing of public executions. One such report notes that, two days ago, an Afghan interpreter was hung in the streets, his arms severed and his Department of Defense ID card burned into his chest. Those who didn't make it to the airport—U.S. citizens and Afghans alike—have gone into hiding as they attempt to avoid a similar fate, frantically trying to contact the American government in the hopes that someone can find them before the Taliban does. The largest news organizations are publicly pleading for the government to help rescue their people.

It's true that some of the chaos in Afghanistan was inevitable. "It was very obvious what was going to happen," says Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University and an expert in international security. "The nation building has been a failure. The Afghan government is seen as a stooge. And over the past few years, the Taliban has been gaining ground….Withdrawing was tantamount to giving the Taliban the keys."

It seemed Biden was under a different impression last month when he said he had confidence the Afghan army might be able to hold its own, a sentiment echoed by many military experts. In reality, the Taliban took over in a matter of weeks, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country. "I do not believe the American public understood" what the final result would be, adds Abrahms, "and I don't blame them for not understanding that."

But we didn't have to leave U.S. citizens and Afghan allies in this bind. Military officials reportedly warned the Biden administration that waiting to evacuate American personnel would have dire consequences, which came to fruition. And the failure to help Afghans who assisted the U.S. military may have also come down, at least somewhat, to a political calculation. "It's like they want the credit from liberals for ending the Trump cruelty to immigrants and refugees but they also don't want the political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers," said one administration official who explained Biden's hesitancy to promptly fulfill the country's promise—something that lawmakers have been pushing for months.

It's important to note that, just like any issue, no one person deserves all the blame. Past administrations had years to remedy the inefficiencies of the SIV program and save Afghans before the eleventh hour. But though Biden may claim he is helpless, he is not: He could bring these Afghans into the country under a policy known as humanitarian parole, and could then proceed with vetting when they no longer have terrorists breathing down their necks.

"I think it had to do with vision," says Abrahms. "It just doesn't seem like there was any real planning."

Justin Amash, the former Libertarian congressman from Michigan, sticks by his conviction that the war needed to reach its finale. "Given the state of the (former) Afghan government and army, it's clear there was never going to be a 'right' time," he tells Reason.

But what about the popular neoconservative refrain? "By this past January, we had just 2,500 troops [in Afghanistan]," wrote former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. "That's fewer soldiers than we have in about a dozen other countries today and our presence kept the Taliban in check." 

That small presence was the result of the Doha Agreement, struck by former President Donald Trump, under which the U.S. pulled troops back from 15,500 and negotiated peace terms with the Taliban in exchange for our promise to leave by May 1 of this year. "If the U.S. occupation were further extended," adds Amash, "it's likely direct hostilities with the Taliban would have resumed—and then we'd probably see the president put additional troops on the ground, which would further prolong things."

It's a good reminder of how forever wars earned their name. But that doesn't acquit Biden of his role in the chaos. "The Biden administration miscalculated the relative strength and will of the Afghan security forces and the Taliban, but that surprise alone can't explain the botched evacuation efforts now underway," says Amash. "I'm sure we'll learn more about these failures going forward, but clearly the administration waited far too long to plan for the logistical challenges involved in processing and evacuating tens of thousands of people. This particular debacle was avoidable, even if Taliban control of Afghanistan was not."