Last week President Biden formally spoke twice in just three days on the horrific, chaotic rescue attempts to transport Americans and qualifying Afghan workers out of Afghanistan to safety elsewhere. His first speech, on August 16, was not the Joe Biden many Americans thought they knew. He seemed irritable, stubborn and without apology. Days later his tone mellowed, but his promises seemed hollow against the harsh realities on the ground in Kabul and beyond. He was committed, he said, to bring home all Americans who wanted to return, while indicating that those Afghans, who feared for their lives, could also leave.
I watched both speeches, read everything I could get my hands on, and listened to countless hours of “analysis”—as pundits and retired colonels opined at length. Here are just three points—among many others—that undergird the mess we’re in and illuminate the shortcomings of our national security strategy and leadership.
- The “peace agreement”: President Biden felt it necessary to defend a peace treaty negotiated and signed on February 29, 2020, by the Trump administration. Under normal circumstances that would have been the right thing to do. But the agreement is so imprecise and so one-sided (in favor of the Taliban) it has been called a “surrender document” by some critics. The terms of the agreement all but doomed the Afghan government and the military we had worked 20 years to build and sustain. Consequently, many veterans are struggling to find the meaning in their own sacrifices.
When I read the agreement, I was stunned by its tone. It seems to suggest that the Taliban can be trusted. It even has a section on cooperating with them on infrastructure development at some later stage, together with what was then the US-backed Afghan government. Read the brief agreement here and you will be, perhaps, as shocked as I was to see that there are no verification measures outlined. It is irrelevant if they appeared later elsewhere. Ways to verify the Taliban’s commitments during our withdrawal should have been central to the agreement. What ever happened to that critical element of international arms agreements, “Trust but Verify”—a notion Ronald Reagan used in his negotiations with the Soviet Union?
The agreement has other problems as well:
• The Afghan government, which we supported, was not at the negotiating table. Their role was to work out details with the Taliban later, after we had already sealed their fates.
• We agreed that our side would work to release 5,000 political prisoners, as a “confidence building measure.” (The Taliban had to release only 1000). Later, the US-backed Afghan government had objections to some of the figures the Taliban had on their list. But, ultimately, more than 5,000 Taliban warriors were released in exchange for a cease-fire. This occurred during the 2020 US presidential campaign.
Bottom line: After becoming President, Joe Biden should have renegotiated the agreement and/or listened to his military and intelligence advisors in crafting a plan for a truly worst case-scenario; the kind that has just come to pass. This should have been done before he removed any more troops from the country. This would have given him the time and the leverage either to put this agreement right or to plan and implement a well-ordered departure.
- Blaming others: Biden has slammed the Afghan military forces for the Taliban’s victory. What did he/we think would happen after we withdrew our capacity to use airstrikes and provide intelligence? Biden complained that the Afghans had the advanced equipment we left them and all the training of a first-rate military—even though the contractors who maintained this equipment had been sent home. The President justified his finger pointing by asserting that the Afghan military was larger than NATO’s. A closer look, however, reveals that the Afghan military was not a 300,000-man force, as the President said, but more like one of 30,000. Washington Post fact checker, Glenn Kessler, gave President Biden 3 Pinocchios (for telling TALL tales) and even admitted he probably deserved 4 Pinocchios, for misleading the public, if not intentionally lying to us.
Bottom line: Biden and Trump’s apparent lack of compassion for the people who fought next to us, and whose hopes we ignited, may come back to haunt us. Humiliating others—while harrowing, gut-wrenching images of desperate Afghans saturate the internet—could well be fertile recruitment fodder for terrorists in times ahead.
- Anger among our Allies: Despite Biden’s determination to improve relations with our Allies after the Trump years, the inartful handling of them over the catastrophic demobilization won Biden an unprecedented censure in the British Parliament. (PM Boris Johnson was also singled out.) The image of NATO Alliance members being caught flatfooted, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, during an historic election for her replacement, is worrisome and likely to have lingering effects. The uncoordinated US decision to send home troops and embassy personnel before evacuating all Americans, our NATO Allies, as well as visa holders and Afghan support personnel, has created significant problems for our Allies at home.
Bottom line: At such a crucial moment, this fiasco, could well weaken NATO’s credibility and call into question, internationally, America’s reliability as a global leader. It is especially damaging to the NATO Alliance that fought with us in Afghanistan after September 11, under their NATO Article 5 commitment: an “attack on one is an attack on all.”
This bi-partisan American debacle is fast becoming part of history. Four Presidents—two Republicans and two Democrats—have been unable to resolve George W. Bush’s decision to imbed ourselves in Afghanistan’s daily life. It is high time that the United States look at its national security more holistically, while recognizing that others have national and political interests too. This includes doing a better job of understanding foreign cultures and the limitations of our country’s financial resources and its attention span. We must learn again the cruel lesson of Vietnam: often we have only ourselves to blame for such mistakes.
It is hard to produce sustainable results if you are not prepared to make sustainable commitments to a set of goals, especially those that are easy to articulate, but exceedingly difficult to achieve.
For an extraordinarily insightful piece in the Atlantic, read “What I Learned While Eavesdropping on the Taliban.” It helps make this point.