President Biden’s Thursday speech, in which he announced that our military mission in Afghanistan would end on August 31, was comprised of so many internal contradictions and contortions of fact that it’s going to take a bit of work to unpack.
It is past time for us to withdraw from Afghanistan, but Mr. Biden is accomplishing this without regard for what happens next.
Mr. Biden claimed that we went to war in Afghanistan “…to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives.”
That was a bolder claim than former president George W. Bush made in 2003 when he said that we and our allies had prevailed in Iraq. Mr. Biden quickly backed away from it. He told a reporter that his wasn’t a “mission accomplished” claim and said that our mission in Afghanistan “hasn’t failed…yet.”
The fact is that, despite the admonition in former President Trump’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban, it hasn’t severed its alliance with al-Qaida. There are no facts to support Mr. Biden’s claim that Afghanistan won’t soon again become a base from which terrorist attacks by al-Qaida (or other terrorist networks) can be mounted against the US in the future.
Mr. Biden repeatedly said that it is up to the Afghan people – the Kabul government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban – to decide their own future. Is he ignorant of the involvements of Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia, each of which has been supplying the Taliban with funding and arms for years? Pakistan, in particular, has been involved with the Taliban since they were the mujahideen fighting against the Soviets in the 1980s and has supported the Taliban throughout our twenty-year war.
Those nations have substantial (at times competing) roles which will enable them, not the “people of Afghanistan,” to decide that nation’s future.
The president’s advisers must know these facts, but Mr. Biden is evidently willing to ignore them.
Mr. Biden insisted to reporters that there are no parallels between our unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam. But in both wars, we were fighting indigenous forces supported by external nations such as Russia. In both wars, we were supporting corrupt regimes that were unwilling or unable to defeat their enemies. In both wars, we were able to win every stand-up battle but couldn’t implant democracy. And, in both, the ideologies of the enemies – the strong nationalism and, in the case of Afghanistan, the enormous power of the Islamist ideology – were undiminished by the time we were defeated and withdrew.
Mr. Biden also claimed that our intelligence community hasn’t concluded that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is inevitable. That is partially true. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the IC has concluded that the Kabul regime could fall within six months of a US withdrawal which is consistent with the conclusion of our military intelligence agencies.
The Journal’s leak of the IC’s report came at about the same time as a Taliban offensive that had reportedly won control of dozens of northern districts. The Taliban now claim to control 85% of Afghanistan. There are credible reports of thousands of Afghan troops deserting bordering nations, including Tajikistan. The Taliban has also reportedly taken control of several border crossings, enabling it to collect customs duties on imported goods.
As Mr. Biden said, the Taliban is stronger now than at any time since 2001. His faith in Afghanistan’s National Security Force is, at best, misplaced.
Mr. Biden said that we are developing a counter-terrorism capability that will enable us to act “quickly and decisively” to any terrorist threat emanating from the region. Think about that for a moment.
Over-the-horizon capabilities require substantial time to operate. Even with in-country intelligence assets – spies – reporting to our intelligence agencies in real-time, it will take hours or days to get the chain of command – which includes the president – to react. (And we won’t have that in-country intelligence capability because we are apparently withdrawing that capability from Afghanistan.)
It takes hours for sea-based cruise missiles to reach their targets, and operating out of Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri; it reportedly takes at least twelve hours for an American B-2 to reach a target in Afghanistan.
Those days and hours make it entirely unlikely that our “over-the-horizon” forces can succeed in attacking any terrorist base in Afghanistan even if Mr. Biden were willing to use them.
Mr. Biden said we would continue to support the Kabul regime and ensure its air forces continue to fly. How many of its pilots will attempt to flee to safety like the interpreters and others who cooperated with US forces and want to reach safety in the US?
Mr. Biden has an unrealistic view of what will go on in Afghanistan after US and Coalition forces withdraw. The Taliban have said that any US troops remaining in the nation will be targeted for an attack which presumably includes the few hundred protecting our huge embassy in Kabul.
The president said that we wouldn’t see the last helicopter lifting off the roof of our Kabul embassy as we saw in Saigon in 1975. We may yet.
* Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”