The chaotic and poorly managed withdrawal from Afghanistan is the Biden administration’s first major foreign policy crisis. This is not due to the decision to withdraw US forces from the country. What happened was an execution failure, not a strategy failure.
The American presence was increasingly unsustainable: the United States had already withdrawn a large number of troops, the Taliban was rapidly gaining ground and few Americans cared yet.
Biden inherited a broken peace process and, if he returned to Trump’s commitments, the prospect of a new conflict with a reinforced Taliban.
Moving the fight forward would have required a massive increase in the US military presence, which no one in Biden’s cabinet, and especially the president, was prepared to support.
Withdrawal was the best possible option, all of them really bad. President Biden has strong convictions in this regard, which was made clear in his address to the nation on Monday.
What was surprising – and, frankly, shocking, given the knowledge and experience of the national security and foreign policy teams that Biden assembled – was the sheer incompetence of the execution. There were four main flaws:
1) Military and intelligence failure. US intelligence agencies believed Kabul could resist the Taliban for two or three years. Once the Taliban offensive was stepped up, the intelligence assessment fell to two or three days. Two facts here are truly astounding:
A) the United States spent 20 years and spent $ 88 billion to train an Afghan force that refused to fight; B) After 20 years of training Afghans in person, the United States still does not understand (or does not want to understand) their real capabilities and real will to fight.
2) Coordination failure. The United States fought alongside its allies for two decades. But when the time came to end his presence, Biden did it on his own – both in terms of the policy review, decision, announcement, execution and what happened next. , including the evacuation of citizens, reception of refugees, humanitarian support and so on.
After four years of Trump’s “America First”, American allies expected a different attitude from the country towards their friends. In addition to its allies, the United States also missed the opportunity to collaborate with China. Neither country wanted Afghanistan to collapse into a failed state or return to the export of international terrorism.
There was room for creative diplomacy in one of the few areas where the Chinese and Americans really agree, but this opportunity was wasted.
3) Failed planning. Intelligence and coordination errors should not have ended in disaster if the Biden administration had devised effective plans for alternative scenarios. But, judging by all we know, the government did not.
The United States had to airlift troops from the mainland to facilitate the evacuation, sending 3,500 more troops than they had withdrawn in the first place. Kabul airport has been overrun by desperate Afghan civilians; an American cargo plane was evacuated with thousands of Afghans running down the runway beside it, and three stowaways fell after the plane took off, dying in the crash. Planning to ensure the safety of the thousands of Afghans who had assisted US forces was non-existent, and many of them will be left behind.
4) Communication failure. A few weeks ago, as he sought to convince the Americans of the need for the pullout, Biden said it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would end up “invading everything and taking the whole country” . He insisted that “under no circumstances will we see people being lifted off the roof” of the US Embassy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We will stay, the embassy will stay, our programs will stay. If there is a significant deterioration in security, I don’t think it will happen between a Friday and a Monday.
As these predictions were refuted in real time, the administration began to insist that we “made it” in Afghanistan. What should have been a difficult but necessary decision turned into a debacle, exposing Biden to accusations from political opponents that he was personally responsible for the failure of the war – an absurd accusation given a failure that lasted. 20 years old and cost $ 2 trillion, but this is now partially attributed to him.
The next few days will be crucial. Kabul’s government has fallen and former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country in exile, but scores of Americans and foreigners are still trapped in the capital, with thousands of US troops en route to evacuate them.
Will the Taliban try to kidnap or kill Americans when they leave? Will the chaos result in accidents and deaths for American journalists, aid workers, diplomats or the military?
The White House faces a series of worst-case scenarios reminiscent of the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran and the failed Iranian hostage rescue in 1980. We will soon know if Kabul 2021 will be added to this list.
Even if Biden avoids an even worse catastrophe, the impression given in the coming weeks will be appallingly negative. The Taliban will capitalize on the publicity victory by hoisting their flag in Kabul – including the former United States Embassy – on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Billions of dollars in military equipment abandoned by the Americans will parade through the capital. Taliban forces will consolidate their control through atrocities, especially against women and girls.
The US media is unlikely to fail to cover all of this in depth – especially if, as is likely, some of its representatives find themselves in chaos. Congress will hold hearings and question senior administration officials about what happened.
Afghanistan will once again play its role as a haven for international terrorism – either because the Taliban will directly harbor extremist groups or, more likely, because it will not be able to control its territory. Conflict zones act as magnets that attract jihadists from all over the world, as demonstrated by Afghanistan in the 1980s, Bosnia in the 1990s, Iraq in the 2000s and Syria in the 2010s .
The Islamic State’s wave of terrorism in Europe was made possible by the organization’s ability to recruit extremists from around the world, train them in Syria and Iraq, and send them back to their home countries. The ability of the United States to monitor and attack terrorist groups in Afghanistan will be constrained by the lack of intelligence on the ground and the limits of regional military capability.
The “known unknowns” about Afghanistan will skyrocket in the years to come. This in itself is bad news for America.