Few could have foreseen the whirlwind George W. Bush was summoning when he delivered a May 2003 televised address aboard an aircraft carrier flanked by a banner declaring America’s “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Combat operations against the vicious Hussein regime’s regular forces were over, but America’s “mission” in Iraq was only beginning. Years of brutal fighting, political turmoil, and unsatisfying half victories were yet to come.
Bush’s premature triumphalism soon became a metaphor for irrational exuberance at the expense of political capital and credibility. As Bush later conceded, that moment “communicated the wrong message” to the public about the scale of the challenges in Iraq. The rest of his presidency was haunted by the phrase. But unlike the current administration, at least George W. Bush’s only made the mistake of observing an untimely victory once. Joe Biden has provided us with a series of “mission accomplished” moments from which posterity might draw only a handful to render a negative verdict on his handling of American interests.
For example, the Biden administration took a somewhat qualified victory lap following the long-delayed extraction of some of the many American citizens, permanent residents, and other eligible Afghan allies the U.S. left behind when it adhered to a self-set August 31 deadline for full withdrawal from the country. Many feared that the delay, administered by the Taliban, had become a de facto hostage crisis. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken bristled at the suggestion. This was no “hostage crisis,” per se. Merely, the people we wanted to get out weren’t being allowed to leave. And only for what Blinken suggested was the militia group’s perfectly reasonable desire to hold onto as many Afghan nationals as possible.
On Thursday, one of many of those deferred flights was let go. But it was soon learned that only 30 Americans were among the 200 new evacuees. There’s much we don’t yet know about what leverage or incentives were used to loosen the Taliban’s grip on the human assets in its custody. We do know that, by the administration’s own likely conservative estimates, many more American citizens, green-card holders, and Afghans remain in country. One advocacy group put the number of U.S. residents trapped in Afghanistan in the thousands. And of the 120,000 people evacuated in the hectic days that preceded August 31, only 8,500 or so were Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement in the West. According to the State Department, the “majority” of Afghans who worked with and were subsequently betrayed by the United States were left behind, and they could number in the tens of thousands.
On August 19, Joe Biden assured the nation that “if there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.” That lie has and will continue to eat away at the president’s political standing. The White House and its allies would be well-advised to avoid congratulating themselves on the completion of one of many outstanding contingency operations designed to clean up a mess the administration made for itself. But this is only one of the poorly considered celebrations in which Joe Biden and his supporters have allowed themselves over the last two weeks.
“We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago,” the president asserted with a tone of irritation that betrayed the untruth of his claim. In that defiant August 31 address, Biden contended that the neutralization of al-Qaeda spiritual leader in 2011 functionally ended the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. It had only continued for a decade more as a result of bureaucratic inertia. The locus of transnational Islamist terrorism was no longer in Afghanistan—a deadly Islamic State terror attack that claimed the lives of 13 Americans, as well as scores of Afghans and NATO allies, not one week earlier notwithstanding.
This, too, is unlikely to age well. The Taliban’s victory over the allies who devoted 20 years to the Afghan conflict “is encouraging many jihadists to think about traveling to Afghanistan now instead of Syria or Iraq,” one British intelligence official told the Washington Post. The return of the Taliban to power in Kabul compelled Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to confess that the timeline in which terrorist elements would once again represent a threat to the American homeland had accelerated. “The whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaida has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan,” Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin told reporters this week. “The nature of al-Qaida and (the Islamic State group) is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate.” He added that the U.S. would continue to disrupt and deter terrorist operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. But the messy and mostly reactive response to an ISIS attack on Kabul’s airport calls into question the efficacy of post-withdrawal counterterrorism operations in Central Asia.
And if the United States has been made more secure by the debacle in Afghanistan, the visuals to which American audiences are being treated don’t suggest that at all. The Taliban has indicated that it will formally inaugurate its new government in Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks against the U.S. The date is surely designed to humiliate the United States as much as to reinvigorate the terrorist elements that spent the last two decades evading American vengeance. In fact, many of those same terrorists will serve in the new Afghan government.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s new interior minister charged with maintaining domestic security, heads the Haqqani Network, a U.S.-designated terrorist group with close operational ties to al-Qaeda. Haqqani is wanted for his involvement in several terrorist attacks, some of which targeted and killed Americans. Mullah Yaqoob, the son of the infamous Taliban commander Mullah Omar, is in charge of the country’s defense. He oversaw the field commanders who led the insurgency against the Afghan government and is complicit in the Taliban’s atrocities against the Afghan people. Hibatullah Akhundzada, a hardline cleric who encouraged his own son to execute a suicide-bombing attack, serves as the Taliban’s supreme commander. And the country’s prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund begins his tenure as head of state on a United Nations sanctions list.
The president insists that this iteration of the Taliban will be unable to govern Afghanistan, but they have so far ruled with an iron fist. Moreover, the administration betrays this as more hope than expectation when its members dangle the idea that the United States could one day recognize the legitimacy of a Taliban-led government. The notion that America would even contemplate acknowledging the validity of the Taliban’s ascension to power through force of arms isn’t just a moral atrocity but also an act of abject cowardice that leaves Americans at home and abroad exposed.
The reconstitution of the Taliban does not inspire confidence that the United States is in any way safer because of the Biden administration’s actions. And, if recent history is any guide, this administration will suffer political consequences as a result.