With Taliban fighters poised to rout the U.S.-backed Afghan government – and with it the 20-year, multibillion-dollar effort to root Western-style democracy in Afghan soil – President Joe Biden over the weekend first offered compassion for those left behind.
“Our hearts go out to the brave Afghan men and women who are now at risk,” he said in a statement late Saturday as insurgents closed in on Kabul.
But then Biden pivoted to the cold calculation behind his decision to pull the plug on a mission that has cost more than 2,000 American lives.
“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Biden said. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
It was a harsh and bracing assessment from a president better known for misty-eyed empathy. It reflects an increasingly defiant and defensive tone from Biden and his aides amid criticism that Biden is condemning a U.S. partner to brutal rule by Islamist fundamentalists and opening the door to new terrorist threats.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a U.S. Army Reserve officer who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, said Biden’s unwillingness to do more to aid the country – and to protect the interpreters and fixers who helped U.S. soldiers – shows a callousness that will make it hard to gain allies in the nation’s next conflict.
“Who’s going to trust us again?” he said. “Who’s going to trust us enough to risk not just their lives, but their entire family’s lives to stand with the United States, whether it’s protests in Cuba, whether it’s Taiwan? This is going to resonate for years.”
Waltz is similarly angry, and at a loss, over what he called a wholesale failure to protect vulnerable Afghans who helped Americans over the past two decades.
“I just don’t know if he’s clueless at what’s really going to happen to these people or there’s some distinction in his mind that he just doesn’t care,” Waltz said. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
Biden monitored the debacle on Sunday from Camp David in Maryland, where he held a video conference with national security advisers. White House officials briefed a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Sunday. Biden has not spoken about Afghanistan in public since Tuesday.
The White House line was firm. There is no military solution in Afghanistan and Biden will not allow more Americans to die in that cause, U.S. officials said. That is a view supported by public opinion polling, and it bears echoes of former president Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.
“What I am feeling and thinking about the situation in Afghanistan, I can never fit on Twitter,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., himself an Iraq War veteran, tweeted. “But one thing that is definitely sticking out is that I haven’t gotten one constituent call about it and my district has a large Veteran population.”
U.S. officials pointed out that Trump initiated the withdrawal with the same rationale of preventing needless American battlefield deaths.
Biden refused to extend a futile mission that lacked American public support, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday shortly before the government in Kabul folded.
“And by the way, from the perspective of our strategic competitors around the world, there’s nothing they would like more than to see us in Afghanistan for another five, 10, 20 years,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s simply not in the national interest.”
The end came Sunday, swift and symbolic. Helicopters flew evacuation missions from the U.S. Embassy – a scenario Biden had said would never occur – and the U.S. flag was lowered. For the second straight day, the Pentagon ordered more troops to the country for a temporary mission to assist in the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.
The Taliban proclaimed the return of its Islamic confederate – meaning that the militants who harbored the terrorists who planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will be back in control on the 20th anniversary of that event.
Afghans rushed the airport, and the acting U.S. ambassador left the country.
So did Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who had thanked Biden warmly for American sacrifice in Afghanistan during a June visit to the White House.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future of what they – what they want,” Biden said then, adding that the United States would provide money and other help.
“We’re going to do our best to see to it you have the tools you need,” he said in a clear refutation of an American nation-building role.
Biden may not be as insulated by public opposition to the war as he thinks he is, critics said. Nor is the assumption that Trump’s support for a withdrawal transfers immunity to Biden, said Nathan Sales, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator under Trump.
“The Biden administration owns this because they have taken the Trump administration conditions-based approach and replaced it with a determination to leave no matter what the circumstances are on the ground,” said Sales, now affiliated with the Atlantic Council.
Biden initially supported the invasion but changed his mind as the war settled into a stalemate with the Taliban, while efforts to establish a functioning elected government repeatedly foundered. He opposed the expansion of the war under President Barack Obama, when Biden was vice president, and entered office determined to close it down.
“So let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more – how many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?” Biden said in a speech from the White House last month. “Already we have members of our military whose parents fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Would you send their children and their grandchildren as well? Would you send your own son or daughter?”
Throughout his political career, Biden has spoken in searingly personal terms of a strong, even sacred, obligation to cushion American soldiers and their families from the costs of America’s wars.
He closes many public addresses with a solemn prayer that “may God protect our troops.” Following his announcement in April of a full U.S. military withdrawal, Biden teared up as he visited the section of Arlington National Cemetery where the dead from the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried.
Biden’s eldest son, Beau Biden, was a member of the Delaware Army National Guard who deployed to Iraq in 2008. The president has often referenced his own concerns about his safety – and about Beau’s cancer death in 2015 at age 46 – in talking about the effects of keeping troops in Afghanistan.
Beau Biden’s unit was activated to deploy to Iraq the day after Joe Biden participated in the 2008 vice-presidential debate, and the elder Biden addressed his feelings on national television.
“I don’t want him going,” Biden said. “But I tell you what – I don’t want my grandson or my granddaughters going back in 15 years, and so how we leave makes a big difference.”
Later, Biden said his son’s exposure to military burn pits during the deployment may have led to his death.
“He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go,” Biden said at a Service Employees International Union convention in October. “And because of exposure to burn pits – in my view, I can’t prove it yet – he came back with Stage 4 glioblastoma.”
Biden frequently embraces people who have lost loved ones to tragedy, and he seems especially moved by the fallout from modern war, at home and abroad. But he has seemed to separate pathos from duty on behalf of those beyond U.S. shores.
As a presidential candidate last year, Biden was asked whether the United States had a responsibility to Afghan women and girls in light of a possible Taliban takeover. “No, I don’t!” Biden said. “Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility.”
“The idea of us being able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists in the world is just not within our capacity,” he continued. “The question is, is America’s vital self-interest at stake or the self-interest of one of our allies at stake?”