Biden is right to resist the Afghanistan backlash

Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

The war in Afghanistan is over, and the Taliban has won in a rout. Former President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, and Taliban forces control Kabul and all the provincial capitals. It’s over — far sooner than most predicted.

In response, there has been a terrible crush of Afghans trying to escape the country. Shocking videos show terrified people clinging to the side of American planes as they take off, some of them apparently later falling to their deaths.

Defenders of American empire are furious. “This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden,” writes George Packer at The Atlantic. At the same publication, Tom Nichols heaps contempt on the American people for not supporting the occupation. It’s Biden’s “first great fiasco,” claims Bret Stephens at The New York Times. “[W]e have seen a precipitous withdrawal with no real plan in place to ensure the peace and stability of Afghanistan and its people,” complained Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). 

“The events we see now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan,” Biden responded in a speech Monday defending his actions. Now, the president does deserve blame for bungling the refugee evacuation. But at bottom, the imperialists are wrong. Sticking to withdrawal was the right move.

In the first instance, the imperialist reaction reveals a profound inability to understand what the Afghanistan occupation was really like. Absolutely everything about it was bungled horrendously from start to finish. For decades, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been producing reports showing utter failure at every major task the occupation set for itself.

Informed observers have predicted for years that the Taliban would probably defeat the Afghan “government” more or less the minute U.S. forces left. Even that wasn’t cynical enough — it seems in most cases, the government corruption (caused in large part by the oceans of ill-supervised U.S. reconstruction money) went so deep that a few bribes and threats were enough to get soldiers and officials to desert or switch sides en masse without firing a shot. That’s a situation that feeds on itself: If the Taliban are absolutely guaranteed to win, why risk your life trying to fight them?

More importantly, top American military commanders have a years-long record of both lying to the public and manipulating presidents to prolong the occupation. Classified versions of SIGAR reports show both politicians and generals saying the exact opposite of what they knew to be true about how the occupation was going. President Obama — in a shameful display of passivity and cowardice — gave in to military demands for a “surge” in Afghanistan against his better judgment. Sure enough, that did absolutely nothing but get thousands of people killed. The generals manipulated President Trump away from his instinct to get out of there at first, though (to his credit) Trump did eventually sign a ceasefire with the Taliban in February last year, which contained the current timeline for withdrawal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. forces trained the Afghan military to operate with high-tech American equipment and close air support — suggesting either bone-deep idiocy, or a deliberate intention to make it impossible for Afghan units to fight without American support, and thus prolong the occupation indefinitely.

The attacks on Biden reveal a deep imperial chauvinism, and either a childlike naivete about the character of American empire or outright dishonesty. These folks insist that America could have done the withdrawal better, imagining a capacity for competent governance that could not possibly be less in evidence. Of course the U.S. screwed up the situation — it has done literally nothing else for two decades straight.

Meanwhile, as one commenter at Talking Points Memo suggests, President Biden is likely calculating that if he prolonged the occupation, “the response would have been a months-long campaign of foot-dragging and leaking — to pressure him toward the military’s preferred course of staying in Afghanistan indefinitely[.]” That’s probably correct — it’s what the military brass did to both of Biden’s predecessors.

Trump had agreed to withdraw by May this year, which Biden had already delayed. When the Afghan government collapsed much, much faster than predicted, he had two options: either stick to the plan, or send in tens of thousands of troops back in to try to prop up the government, and in the process almost certainly re-start the war. In that context, getting out is obviously the right choice.

Now, that doesn’t let Biden off the hook for failing to get so many refugees out. If he is to blame, it is for not being cynical enough about what was going to happen and not pressuring the hapless American bureaucracy to function more quickly. He should have assumed the Afghan government would collapse instantly and started getting people out by the thousands months ago.

But what’s done is done, and there may still be time to help Afghans who worked for the occupation and hence face possible retribution. In the coming weeks there is going to be enormous pressure (much of it coming from the same imperialists currently pretending to care about suffering Afghan people) to inflict collective punishment on all Afghanistan, through economic sanctions and other means, in retribution for humiliating the U.S. It’s the same kind of petty, vindictive cruelty that was inflicted on Vietnam and Cambodia after we lost that war.

Far better would be for the U.S. to use its remaining diplomatic leverage to bargain for the safety of those remaining civilians. The Taliban now rules Afghanistan, and if the last 20 years of blood-drenched failure have proved anything, it’s that there’s nothing the U.S. can do about that. Their total victory, accomplished with breathtaking ease, might have them in a magnanimous mood. Biden should face facts and negotiate: offer sanctions relief, diplomatic recognition, or other concessions if the Taliban will agree to give the U.S. another month to get people out (and perhaps hold to their previous agreement not to harbor terrorist groups).

The internal politics of Afghanistan are simply none of America’s business. The U.S. has working relationships with many authoritarian governments, a fact that is studiously ignored by the imperialist crew whenever they are using the repression of some government as a justification for wars of aggression. Some of them are every bit as bad as the Taliban if not worse, including violent attacks on Americans authorized at the highest level. One such place is Vietnam, where about 20 years after the fall of Saigon the post-war embargo was grudgingly lifted, and today America is actually quite popular there.

America can learn from this appalling waste of lives and resources, resolve not to do it again in future, and try to limit the collateral damage. Or we can stamp our feet and insist that we are too God’s chosen nation and can always have whatever we want all the time, and thereby set the stage for the next failed occupation.



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