Arab News

Yes, Blame Joe Biden for Afghan Fiasco … But Learn the Lessons Too

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Taliban fighters stand guard near a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
Taliban fighters stand guard near a car damaged by multiple rockets in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Former US generals Mark Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, who were chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and head of US Central Command respectively when the US withdrew from Afghanistan, were the star witnesses at last week’s congressional hearing on the fiasco.

It was the first time either had spoken publicly and on the record about the events leading up to the Taliban takeover.

Unsurprisingly, what they had to say about the withdrawal was damning for the White House. Both blamed the State Department for delaying, until the last minute, the removal of American and qualifying Afghan civilians from the country. This lack of planning led to the chaotic and dangerous situation at Kabul airport witnessed by the world — including the Daesh bombing on Aug. 26 that killed 183 Afghans and Americans. The consequences of the State Department’s lack of planning is still felt today for Afghans who risked their lives helping US forces for two decades. An estimated 152,000 Afghans who qualify for refuge in the US are still stuck in Afghanistan. Most of them, along with their families, remain in hiding and in fear of Taliban retribution. Congress could pass legislation that would help them, but it has failed to do so.

The two retired generals made it clear that the White House also ignored their military advice. Instead of a total US military withdrawal, both suggested that a small military force of about 2,500 soldiers should remain. This was a telling admission because at the time of the withdrawal the White House denied that such a recommendation had been made. Nobody ever claimed that 2,500 troops would have been enough to help the Afghan government take control of the whole country, but in retrospect we now know it would certainly have been enough to ensure that the Taliban could not have seized power.

There was also a political dimension to the congressional hearing that should not go unnoticed. Since taking over control of the US Congress in 2023, Republicans have been keen to use their oversight authorities over the executive branch to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disastrous Afghan withdrawal. This is especially true in the middle of a presidential election year. The Republican leadership in Congress had been hoping to impeach President Joe Biden this year on other issues, but this is now looking unlikely. Republicans therefore see an opportunity to undermine Biden’s authority by reminding Americans of the disaster in Afghanistan under his watch as commander in chief.

However, taking this overtly political approach is a double-edged sword for Republicans. Democrats at the hearing were quick to point out that the original ill-fated agreement between the US and the Taliban that led to the withdrawal from Afghanistan was completed under the Trump administration. As this line of argument goes, Biden was merely continuing with an agreement reached by his predecessor.

It is true that Trump made the dodgy deal with the Taliban, but this does not absolve Biden of his responsibilities as commander in chief. After assuming office in January 2021, Biden had no problem whatsoever changing hundreds of other Trump administration executive orders, policies, and initiatives. The current chaos at the US southern border is an example of this. Had Biden wanted to change the Afghan strategy he inherited from his predecessor, he had the power to do so. He chose not to, and now the Taliban are back in power.

Biden was so determined to leave Afghanistan no matter what the costs that he ignored the advice of his military commanders. Sadly, the Afghans are the ones suffering the consequences today. The situation in Afghanistan has been bleak since the Taliban returned to power. The country has been suffering from an economic and humanitarian crisis exacerbated by natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and droughts. Girls are still banned from attending school above the age of about 11. The international community hasn’t figured out a way to get humanitarian aid into the country and directly to the Afghan people without lining the pockets of the Taliban elites. Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups operate freely in the country.

Putting the politics to one side, there is a legitimate need for Congress to get to the bottom of how the disaster in Kabul unfolded so the same mistakes are not repeated. From the American point of view, the Afghan withdrawal had disastrous effects on US prestige and honor on the global stage. After seeing the defeat in Afghanistan, America’s adversaries were emboldened to test the US in ways they would never have considered otherwise. And many of America’s friends and allies started to question US resolve and commitment. Just six months after America’s withdrawal from Kabul, Russian tanks were rolling into Ukraine.

Of course Biden should be held responsible for what happened in Afghanistan. But while there is a temptation during an election year to use congressional hearings for political grandstanding, politicians should ensure that lessons are also learned from debacle.

This way the same mistakes will not be made again.

Read in Arab News.