President Joe Biden’s (pictured) decision to terminate the military intervention in Afghanistan has widely been criticised by commentators and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Both right and left-wing commentators have excoriated his policy. Especially right-wing commentators have also attacked him personally spewing vituperative vitriol, for example, Greg Sheridan, a hard right-wing (neo-con) commentator who writes on foreign affairs for Rupert Murdoch-owned The Australian, asserted, parroting what Trump used to say at his election rallies, “Biden is plainly in some cognitive decline.” To the best of my knowledge, Sheridan never used a similar expression about Ronald Reagan who was showing clear signs of cognitive impairment (Drs Visar Berisha and Julie Liss of Arizona State University published a research study to that effect,) writes Vidya S Sharma Ph.D.
In this article, first, I wish to show that the (a) kind of criticism that has been heaped on Biden; (b) why most of the criticism of Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan – whether coming from Left or Right – does not stand to scrutiny. It may be noted here that most right-wing commentators have been backgrounded by the security establishment of their respective countries (eg, in case of the US by Pentagon and CIA officials) or right-wing politicians because Biden took this decision against their advice (something that Obama did not have the courage to do). Amongst the retired military brass, former Gen David Petraeus, one of the biggest proponents of counterinsurgency, has emerged as a prominent critic on the Afghanistan exit.
Biden’s decision: A sample of criticism
As one would expect, President Trump, ignoring the convention that ex-Presidents do not criticise the sitting President, and behaving more like the candidate Trump, was one of the first political leaders to criticise Biden. And again lacking any intellectual rigour or honesty, he criticised Biden first on August 16 for evacuating civilians over the withdrawal of U.S. troops. He stated, “Can anyone even imagine taking out our Military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” Then on August 18, presumably after learning that his statement on Monday did not go well with his anti-migrant white supremacist base, he reversed his position. Sharing a CBS News tweet of the image, he re-tweeted, “This plane should have been full of Americans.” To emphasize his message, he further added, “America First!.”
Paul Kelly, the editor at large who writes for The Australian, pretending to be objective, in the beginning, Kelly concedes: “The US surrender to the Taliban is a Trump-Biden project.”
Then he goes on to say: “There can be no excuse and no justification based on “forever war” apologia. This will leave the US weaker, not stronger. Biden’s capitulation testifies to a superpower that has lost its will and its way.”
Sheridan again, writing about the withdrawal of the US troops on August 19, decried that Biden has crafted “the most incompetent, counter-productive, irresponsible, outright destructive withdrawal anyone could imagine – the Taliban could not have choreographed a more favourable sequence of mistakes by the US in its wildest dreams…[Biden] has threatened not only US credibility but the image of basic US competence”.
After the suicide bombers of the ISIS (Khorasan Province) exploded themselves at Kabul airport resulting in the death of 13 US troops and nearly 200 Afghan civilians, Sheridan wrote: “This is the world that Joe Biden has wrought – the return of mass-casualty terrorism, multiple deaths of US soldiers in terror attacks, rejoicing and celebration by extremists around the world, confusion and demoralisation for America’s allies internationally, and death for many of its Afghan friends.”
Commenting upon the chaos caused by Afghan civilians after Biden announced the withdrawal, Walter Russell Mead, writing in Wall Street Journal called it Biden’s “Chamberlain moment” in Afghanistan
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation bemoaned: “As bad as the Biden administration’s cut-and-run policy has been in terms of abandoning Afghan allies and undermining the trust of NATO allies, the glaring drawbacks of trusting the Taliban to protect U.S. national interests in Afghanistan stand out.
“The Biden administration has shared intelligence with the Taliban on the security situation…. the Taliban now have a list of many of the Afghans who had assisted the U.S.-led coalition and were left behind.”
Brianna Keilar of CNN was concerned about the morality of the decision and complained: “For many Afghan war vets here in the US, it’s a violation of a promise at the core of the military ethos: you don’t leave a brother or sister in arms behind.”
Elected representatives of both sides have criticised Biden. Though not many have criticised him for bringing troops home. They are critical of the way the withdrawal has been executed.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, Robert Menendez (Dem, NJ), issued a statement saying he would soon hold a hearing to scrutinize “the Trump administration’s flawed negotiations with Taliban, and the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”
US Rep. Marc Veasey, a member of the US House Armed Services Committee, said, “
“I support the decision to bring our troops home after 20 long years, but I also believe we must answer the tough questions about why we were not better prepared to respond to the unfolding crisis.”
Taking their lead from Trump, some GOP lawmakers and right-wing commentators have reviled Biden for allowing Afghan refugees into the U.S.
Contrasting the above xenophobic and white supremacist ideology, a group of 36 GOP freshman sent a letter to Biden pleading him to aid the evacuation of Afghan allies. Further, nearly 50 senators, including three Republicans, sent a letter to the Biden Administration to expedite the processing of “otherwise inadmissible” Afghan migrants in the US.
Of all the groups (it would be wrong to call them stakeholders), two groups have been the loudest and strongest supporters of maintaining the US military presence in Afghanistan, fighting counterinsurgency and keeping the project of nation-building alive. These are: (a) security, intelligence and defence establishments, and (b) neo-conservative (neo-con) politicians and commentators.
It is worth recalling here that during the George W Bush administration, when the world was briefly unipolar (ie, the US was the sole superpower), the foreign and defence policies were hijacked by neocons (Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Richard Perle, to name a few).
Initially, there was strong support in the US to punish the Taliban who ruled most of Afghanistan because they had refused to hand over Osama-bin-Laden to the US. He was the terrorist whose organisation, Al-Qaida, was behind the 11 September 2001 attack.
On 18 September 2001, the US House of Representatives voted 420-1 and the Senate 98-0 for the US to go to war. This was not just against the Taliban also against “those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States”.
The US marines, with the help of ground forces provided by the Northern Alliance, were soon able to drive out the Taliban from Afghanistan. Osama-bin-Laden, along with the entire leadership of the Taliban escaped to Pakistan. As we all know, bin-Laden was sheltered by the Pakistani Government. He lived under the protection of the Pakistani Government for nearly 10 years in the garrison town of Abbottabad until he was killed on May 2, 2011, by a United States military special operations unit.
It was under the influence of neo-cons, the invasion of Afghanistan was transformed into a nation-building project.
This project aimed to plant democracy, accountable government, free press, independent judiciary and other Western democratic institutions in Afghanistan without any regard to local traditions, cultural history, tribal nature of society, and the vice-like grip of Islam that resembles very closely an Arabic form of Salafism called Wahhabism (practised in Saudi Arabia).
This is what led to the US troop’s 20-year failed attempt to quell the counterinsurgency (or COIN = the totality of actions aimed at defeating irregular forces).
Not really ‘a war’ – Paul Wolfowitz
Neo-cons do not want to spend a cent on the welfare, educational and health programmes at home that will improve the lives of disadvantaged fellow Americans. But they have always believed that to fight insurgency in Afghanistan (and for that matter in Iraq) was a costless adventure. More on this later.
As pointed out above, the right-wing and neo-con commentators favoured the US to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan. Their rationale: that would have maintained the status quo, denied the Taliban victory and also inoculated the US from any future terrorist attack of the kind we saw on the eleventh of September, 2001. They also did not want Biden to honour the agreement struck between the Taliban and the Trump Administration.
Paul Wolfowitz, the former US deputy defence secretary in the George W Bush administration, in an interview on August 19 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National said the deployment of 3000 troops and no military fatalities is not really “a war” for the US at all. Advocating an indefinite stay in Afghanistan, he likened the US military presence in Afghanistan to South Korea. In other words, staying in Afghanistan, according to Wolfowitz, had little cost. Nothing worth mentioning.
Another neo-con commentator, Max Boot, wrote in The Washington Post, “The existing U.S. commitment of roughly 2,500 advisers, combined with U.S. airpower, was enough to maintain a tenuous equilibrium in which the Taliban made advances in the countryside, but every city remained in government hands. Unsatisfying, but a lot better than what we are seeing now.”
Contesting Biden’s decision, Greg Sheridan wrote in The Australian: “Biden says his only choices were the withdrawal he pursued – abject surrender – or escalation with tens of thousands more US troops. There is a strong case that this is not true, that a US garrison force of 5000 or so, with a strong focus on keeping the Afghan air force ready to intervene, might have been workable.”
The former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who suffers from relevance deprivation syndrome, on 14 August issued a statement proclaiming that to withdraw from Afghanistan would be a “major blow” to US standing and urged President Biden to “reverse the course of its final military withdrawal.”
Casting aspersions on the US’s credibility as a reliable partner, Paul Kelly, another neo-con commentator on the payroll of Rupert Murdoch, wrote, “The ignominious rout in Afghanistan triggered by President Joe Biden is the latest evidence of the strategic wake-up call Australia needs to make – rethinking the US alliance in terms of our rhetoric, our responsibilities and our self-reliance.”
Biden’s critics are wrong on all three counts: (a) about facts on the ground in Afghanistan, (b) regarding the continued cost of insurgency to the US taxpayers, and (c) in comparing the stationing of the US troops in South Korea, Europe and Japan with their presence in Afghanistan.
Biden cannot be blamed for this disaster
Before Biden was sworn in as President, the Trump administration already signed a much-criticized agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. The Afghan Government was not a signatory to it. Thus Trump was implicitly recognising that the Taliban were the real power in Afghanistan and controlled and ruled over much of the country.
The agreement contained an explicit timetable for troop withdrawal. It required that in the first 100 days or so, the US and its allies would reduce their forces from 14,000 to 8,600 and vacate five military bases. Over the next nine months, they would vacate all the rest. The agreement stated, “The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan within the remaining nine and a half (9.5) months…The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will withdraw all their forces from remaining bases.”
This flawed peace deal did not stipulate any enforcement mechanism for the Taliban to keep their side of the bargain. It requires to promise not to harbour terrorists. It does not require the Taliban to condemn al-Qaeda.
Though the Taliban were reneging on their part of the agreement, the Trump administration continued to carry out its part of the bargain. It released 5000 battle-hardened Taliban prisoners. It stuck to the troop reduction timetable. It vacated military bases.
It was not Biden who was responsible for this ignominious surrender. The seeds of this collapse were sown, as Trump national security adviser, H.R. McMaster said of Michael Pompeo on a podcast with Bari Weis: “Our secretary of State signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban.” He added: “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”
Commenting on to what extent that the Doha peace deal has set the stage for the Afghan army’s surrender without a fight, Gen. (Rtd.) Petraeus in an interview on CNN said, “Yes, at least in part. First, the negotiations announced to the Afghan people and the Taliban that the US really did intend to leave (which also made the job of our negotiators even more difficult than it already was, as we were going to give them what they most wanted, regardless of what they committed to us). Second, we undermined the elected Afghan government, however flawed it may have been, by not insisting on a seat for it at the negotiations we were conducting about the country they actually governed. Third, as part of the eventual agreement, we forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters, many of whom quickly returned to the fight as reinforcements for the Taliban.”
In reality, neither Biden nor Trump can be blamed for this disaster. The real culprits are neo-cons who ran the foreign and defence policies in the George W Bush administration.
Trump Peace deal made the Taliban stronger than ever before
According to the survey carried out by Pajhwok Afghan News, the largest Independent News agency of Afghanistan, at the end of January 2021 (ie around the time Biden was sworn in as President of the US) the Taliban controlled 52% of Afghanistan’s territory and the Government in Kabul controlled 46%. Nearly 3% of Afghanistan was controlled by neither. Pajhwok Afghan News also found that the Afghan Government and the Taliban often made exaggerated claims regarding the territory they controlled.
Since the date of departure the US and allied forces (= the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF) was widely known in Afghanistan, it made it much easier for the Taliban to gain control of increasing more territory without fighting.
Instead of fighting, the Taliban would approach the local clan/tribal chieftain/warlord(s) of a particular city/town/village and tell him that the US troops would be leaving soon. The Afghan Government is so corrupt that it even pockets the wages of its soldiers. Many of their soldiers and commanders have already come to our side. You cannot rely on the Government in Kabul to come to your aid. So it is in your interest to come to our side. We would offer you a part of the tax take (tax on vehicles passing through, share of opium profits, tax collected from shopkeepers, or any activity taking place in informal economy, etc.). The Taliban would also promise the clan/tribal chief(s) that he/they would be allowed to rule his/their fiefdom as before without much interference from them. It is not very difficult to guess what decision would local warlord make.
Many neo-con critics have suggested that Biden could have torn the Doha peace deal as he has reversed many of Trump’s policies. But there is a difference between reversing domestic policies implemented through an executive directive and not honouring an agreement signed by the between two parties. In this case, one being the US Government and the other future Afghanistan Government. If Biden had not honoured the agreement then it would have further damaged the reputation of the US internationally as happened when Trump pulled out of Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement.
On a political level, it also suited Biden to honour the Doha peace deal because just like Obama and Trump before him, he won the election by promising to end the war in Afghanistan.
Keeping the present number of troops was not the option
As discussed above, many Afghan Government soldiers and commanders defected to the Taliban side long before Biden decided to pull out of Afghanistan. This meant that the Taliban did not only control a greater part of Afghanistan and had more battle-hardened fighters at their disposal, but they were also better armed (all the defectors brought with them a large cache of US arms and equipment).
When the Biden administration reviewed the situation, it soon realised that tearing apart the Doha peace deal and maintaining the present number of troops were not viable options.
If the US had not withdrawn its troops, the attacks by the Taliban on the ASAF would have intensified. There would have been a considerable increase in the insurgency. It would have required another surge. Biden did not want to get trapped in that cycle.
Here it is worth recalling that most of ASAF troops belonging to the NATO countries (and Australia) had already left Afghanistan. When they were in Afghanistan, most of the troops of non-US origin were only carrying out activities that did not involve regular combat, eg, training the Afghan army, guarding their own country’s embassies and other important buildings, building schools, hospitals, etc.
The second fact worthy of mention is that both Obama and Trump wanted to end the involvement of Afghanistan. Obama could not take on the security establishment as was clear from pejorative remarks General McChrystal made about Obama and Biden and many other senior officials in the Obama Administration. So Obama kicked the can to the following President.
Trump wanted to end the war for his white supremacist reasons. In his eagerness to end the war, even before he opened negotiations with the Taliban, the President, who considered himself the best negotiator and deal maker in the world, announced that the US would be leaving Afghanistan. Thus giving the Taliban the prize they had been seeking for the last 20 years without getting anything in return. Trump further agreed to the Taliban’s demand that the Afghan Government must be excluded from any peace talks. In other words, tacitly recognising that the Taliban were the real government. Consequently, the US ended up with what H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Chief, called the “surrender document”.
Was it a humiliating withdrawal?
The Taliban, the press in countries hostile to the interests of the US, eg, China, Pakistan, Russia and commentators in many other countries who see the US as a hegemonistic or imperial power, have painted the US military’s withdrawal as its defeat at the hands of the Taliban. Though it looked like a retreat in defeat yet the fact remains the US pulled out of Afghanistan because President Biden believed that original aims of invading Afghanistan had long been achieved (ie, killing of Osama bin-Laden and many of his lieutenants, emaciation of the Al-Queda) and the US had no strategic interest left to defend or fight for in Afghanistan.
Whether they had valid travel documents or not, thousands of Afghans were always going to try to board the planes, whenever the US troops were going to leave the country now or in twenty years. So the scenes at Kabul airport must not come as a surprise to anyone.
Some commentators have called the attack at Kabul airport in which 13 US military service personnel were killed “humiliating” to the US and also as a piece of evidence that the Taliban were not acting in good faith.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation bemoaned: “As bad as the Biden administration’s cut-and-run policy has been in terms of abandoning Afghan allies and undermining the trust of NATO allies, the glaring drawbacks of trusting the Taliban to protect US national interests in Afghanistan stand out.
“The Biden administration has shared intelligence with the Taliban on the security situation…. the Taliban now have a list of many of the Afghans who had assisted the U.S.-led coalition and were left behind.”
The fact is that the Taliban kept their side of the bargain regarding the withdrawal arrangements. They let all foreigners and ISAF troops board the aircrafts.
Yes, ISIS (K) attacked Kabul airport resulting in 13 US military personnel being killed and about 200 persons injured, mostly Afghans.
But as the attacks in Kabul (September 18, 2021 ) and Jalalabad (September 19, 2021) by ISIS (K) show, the latter, a breakaway faction of the Taliban (Afghanistan-Pakistan), is at war with the Taliban. The Kabul airport attack by ISIS (K) was to show the Taliban that they (ISIS Khorasan) can penetrate their security cordon. ISIS (K) was not acting in cahoots with the Taliban.
This is true, that many Afghans who helped the US and NATO troops have been left behind. But the West has enough leverage on the Taliban to bring them out safely (for more details see my soon to be published article entitled, ‘What leverage does the West have on the Taliban’).
Simply from a logistical viewpoint, US troops, amid chaos, did a magnificent job in airlifting more than 120,000 people in 17 days.
Indeed, history may well have a different view of the Kabul airport evacuation. Technically, it was a logistical triumph, airlifting more than 120,000 people from Kabul in 17 days. Those people who were expecting no hiccups and no civilian and military casualties from an operation of this magnitude are not living in the real world.
Many right-wing commentators have made derogatory comparisons with the US evacuation of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. But they forget ‘Operation Frequent Wind’ involved evacuating only 7000 persons.
On August 16, 2021, the Chinese Government’s English language mouthpiece, Global Times editorialized, “The US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan… has dealt a heavy blow to the credibility and reliability of the US… in 2019, US troops withdrew from northern Syria abruptly and abandoned their allies, the Kurds… How Washington abandoned the Kabul regime particularly shocked some in Asia, including the island of Taiwan.”
The right-wing commentators such as Bob Fu and Arielle Del Turco (in The National Interest), Greg Sheridan, Paul Kelly (in The Australian), Harry Bulkeley, Laurie Muelder, William Urban, and Charlie Gruner (in Galesburg Register-Mail) and Paul Wolfowitz on Australia’s Radio National have been too eager to repeat the Chinese government’s line.
But whatever narrative China and Russia may weave around Biden’s decision to bring the US troops home (a process commenced by Trump), they know very well that the security of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the NATO members (and of other democratic countries) is of paramount concern to the US and it will NOT pull out its troops from any of those countries.
Ending the war in Afghanistan has freed much-needed resources to strengthen the US domestically, modernise its defence forces, and develop the new weapon system. It will strengthen the balance sheet of the Federal Government because its need to borrow will be correspondingly reduced. To put it another way: this decision alone will release enough funds for Biden to carry out his $2 trillion infrastructure programme without borrowing a cent. Does it sound like the decision of a man whose cognitive abilities are on the wane?
Under this pact, Britain and the US will help Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and undertake the necessary technology transfer. This shows how serious Biden is to make China accountable for its revanchist acts. It shows he is genuine about committing to the Indo-Pacific. It shows he is prepared to help allies of the US to equip them with necessary weapon systems. Lastly, it also shows that, just like Trump, he wants the allies of the US to carry a greater burden of their own security.
Analysing the deal from Australia’s viewpoint it reveals that Australia, instead of feeling betrayed, still considers the US a reliable strategic partner. It must also be noted that signing the AUKUS pact has meant that Australia had to break its contract with France which involved France helping Australia to build diesel-powered conventional submarines.
The right wing commentators would be better off not to forget that the US troops in Europe, South Korea and Japan are there to deter cross border aggression not to fight a domestic insurgency 24/7 which was largely fuelled by the presence of US troops.
Some left-wing commentators have criticised Biden because the Taliban rule in Afghanistan would mean girls will not be allowed to study, educated women will not be allowed to work, and many other human rights abuses will take place. But to the best of my knowledge, none of those commentators have demanded that countries like Saudi Arabia should be attacked or that US should attack Pakistan because often Muslim citizens there use the country’s blasphemy law to frame a person of religious minority they have some grudge against.
As far as Taiwan is concerned, instead of abandoning it, the US is in the process of slowly undoing the diplomatic de-recognition of Taiwan that took place when President Richard Nixon established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China.
To meet the challenge of China, President Trump started the policy of undoing the diplomatic de-recognition of Taiwan. He sent his Health Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan.
Biden has continued with the Trump doctrine on this front. He invited Taiwan’s representative in the US, Mr Bi-khim Hsiao, to his inauguration.
Vidya S. Sharma advises clients on country risks and technology-based joint ventures. He has contributed numerous articles for such prestigious newspapers as: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne), The Australian Financial Review, The Economic Times (India), The Business Standard (India), EU Reporter (Brussels), East Asia Forum (Canberra), The Business Line (Chennai, India), The Hindustan Times (India), The Financial Express (India), The Daily Caller (US. He can be contacted at: [email protected]