WASHINGTON — The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may haunt President Joe Biden, but it could also hang over some of the Republicans who will seek to replace him in 2024.
While Biden has to contend with harrowing images of Afghans trying to flee after the Taliban takeover, former President Donald Trump orchestrated the withdrawal agreement and another potential 2024 GOP contender was photographed with the Taliban leader who is now among those taking charge of Afghanistan.
Trump’s deal with the Taliban would have withdrawn U.S. forces by May 1, but Biden delayed the date until Aug. 31.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met last year with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader, to negotiate terms for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Baradar was released from a Pakistani prison in 2018, a move that U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad in the Trump administration called “my request” during a 2019 speech. Baradar is now one of the key Taliban leaders in Kabul after the group’s capture of the capital city.
The November 2020 photograph of Pompeo standing alongside the Taliban leader circulated widely on social media this month as Pompeo and other former Trump administration officials accused Biden of bungling their withdrawal plan.
Trump, who has not ruled out running for president again, has released a series of furious statements through his Save America PAC to assert that the withdrawal would have been smoother under his leadership.
“First you bring out all of the American citizens. Then you bring out ALL equipment. Then you bomb the bases into smithereens—AND THEN YOU BRING OUT THE MILITARY. You don’t do it in reverse order like Biden and our woke Generals did,” Trump said in a statement last week. “No chaos, no death—they wouldn’t even know we left!”
Trump’s allies have homed in on the argument that Biden failed to properly execute his plan, but even some Republicans have connected the chaos to the Trump administration’s decision to broker a withdrawal deal with the Taliban in the first place.
“I told President Trump, ‘If you leave Afghanistan, the place will fall into disarray,’” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told McClatchy’s The State last week.
“As long as we had some of our soldiers on the ground watching the terrorists, we would be safe at home. You cannot defend America without any Americans on the ground in Afghanistan. You can’t trust the Taliban to take care of our interests,” he said.
Trump’s withdrawal agreement
One intelligence expert said the collapse of the Afghan government was a direct result of the 2020 agreement negotiated by the Trump administration.
“It was a terribly negotiated agreement, which essentially boxed the United States into capitulation to the Taliban,” said Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism chief for South Asia and Southwest Asia who retired in 2019.
The deal relieved the Taliban of any obligation to negotiate with the Afghan government, which was not referred to by name in the agreement’s text, and dropped any requirement for a cease-fire, said London, a 34-year CIA veteran and author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.”
In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, former Trump administration officials, especially those with potential presidential aspirations, have scrambled to distinguish between Trump’s plan to withdraw by May and Biden’s plan to pull out of Afghanistan by September.
Former Vice President Mike Pence in a column in The Wall Street Journal accused Biden of breaking the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban. The Republican National Committee deleted a page touting Trump’s withdrawal plan from its website.
Pence is one several former Trump administration officials, along with Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who could mount a campaign in 2024 if Trump doesn’t run. But attacking Biden on the Afghanistan withdrawal without criticizing their former boss poses a challenge.
Haley, who left Trump’s administration before the agreement was signed, slammed the Biden administration for communicating with the Taliban.
“To have our Generals say that they are depending on diplomacy with the Taliban is an unbelievable scenario. Negotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil,” Haley said on Twitter last week.
But when asked about Pompeo and Trump having negotiated with the Taliban, an aide to Haley said her remark was directed solely at the Biden administration. The former South Carolina governor and potential presidential candidate amended her comments days later.
“The thing is there are times you have to negotiate with the devil, but you negotiate with the devil from a point of strength. You don’t do it from a point of weakness,” Haley said on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday, contending that Trump showed strength, unlike Biden.
Pompeo’s negotiations with Taliban
Because of Pompeo’s role in developing the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, he is seen as more vulnerable to political fallout from Afghanistan than other Republicans positioning for the 2024 presidential race if Trump decides not to run.
It was Pompeo, London said, who was the architect of the agreement with the Taliban. “President Trump made a decision, but it was Pompeo who really armed him with this,” he said.
In public appearances, Pompeo has bristled at the suggestion that his 2020 negotiations precipitated the Taliban’s takeover of the country the following year.
“This did not happen on our watch. We reduced our forces significantly and the Taliban didn’t advance on capitals all across Afghanistan, so it’s just a plain old fact that this is happening under the Biden administration’s leadership,” Pompeo said on Fox News last week.
Pompeo’s efforts to distance the Trump administration — and himself — from the current situation have drawn scrutiny from Democrats.
“The war in Afghanistan has lasted 20 years and it is a complex situation, but don’t be fooled by those who want to rewrite history,” Texas Democratic Rep. Colin Allred said Saturday on Twitter. “Sec. Pompeo laughed in my face when I expressed concern about exactly what is happening today.”
Biden called the images from Afghanistan “gut-wrenching,” but he has repeatedly defended the decision to withdraw American forces, saying the current situation was unavoidable.
“If we continued the war for another decade and tried to leave, there’s no way in which you’d be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you’re seeing now,” Biden said Friday.
Leaving Afghanistan had become a popular position in both parties in recent years, but Republican lawmakers who have embraced the idea of ending “forever wars” have been anxious to distinguish that position from Biden’s execution of it.
Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, another potential contender for the GOP nomination in 2024, slammed Biden earlier this year for delaying the withdrawal of forces from May. But since it began, Hawley has called for the resignation of Biden’s defense and national security advisers.
“President Biden’s incompetence and failure of leadership is only the latest failure from the Washington establishment in this long war in which so many Americans have honorably fought and died. All of them should answer to the public,” Hawley said last week.
Jason Kander, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who now runs a charity in Kansas City that builds houses for homeless veterans, said the political sparring around the withdrawal has been disappointing.
“From my perspective, me and a lot of my friends who are Afghan veterans have been speaking with Afghans on the ground, trying to get them out, so when we see people in political positions … trying to help their political fortunes instead of helping people evacuate, it’s not very impressive,” said Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state.
The State’s Maayan Schechter and McClatchy DC’s Michael Wilner contributed reporting.