In August, the Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas articulated the Biden administration’s hopes for how it might wiggle out of the mess that the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan had made for the White House. “Memories being short,” he wrote, “voters may eventually forget the tumult at the Kabul airport.” Moreover, “Biden might get political credit for ending American involvement in an unpopular war, as people in his orbit predict.” We can now definitively conclude that this outlook was wishful thinking.
Though there were many contributing factors, satisfaction with the job Joe Biden was doing in office and confidence in his ability to competently manage the nation’s affairs cratered in August, and it never recovered. The shell of a country America left behind in Central Asia never quite fell out of the news in the way Biden’s boosters hoped it would. Between the rising threat of terrorism, a terrible humanitarian crisis, and the slow drip of new information about how spectacularly the withdrawal was bungled, Afghanistan has become a cancer on this administration.
You can understand why Joe Biden would like to pretend that this isn’t happening, so that’s exactly what he’s doing. On Wednesday, the president conveyed that, when it comes to Afghanistan, he is substituting his preferred reality for the one to which we’re all privy.
In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, the president was asked about a damning 2,000-page report produced by the U.S. Army and obtained by reporters as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request. The report details previously unreported violence that American service personnel experienced amid the chaotic withdrawal.
It details how Americans lost their lives in the effort to defend what U.S. commanders knew to be an indefensible position around Kabul’s airport. It blames political leadership in Washington for insisting upon a U.S. military footprint that was too small to hold Bagram Airbase and, thus, to execute a civilian evacuation with anything approaching the necessary speed. It suggests that politics, not national-security concerns, guided decision-making within the National Security Council as the withdrawal date approached. After all, if “policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground,” Rear Admiral Pere Vasely said, the withdrawal might have gone differently.
The level of negligence this report describes is inexcusable. So rather than fabricate some unconvincing excuse for his administration’s recklessness, Biden is taking a bolder approach: Make-believe that none of this is happening.
“Does any of that ring true to you,” Holt said of the report’s conclusions. “No,” Biden replied. “No. That’s not what I was told.”
“That you were told that the U.S. administration officials were prepared,” Holt followed up, “they knew it was time to get out?”
“No,” Biden added. Biden confirmed that “there was no good time to get out,” but that a more cautious evacuation plan would have involved a larger troop presence; “not just 2,000 or 4,000” troops, he said. Biden added that “there was no way we were ever going to unite Ukraine, or, excuse me, Iraq—Afghanistan—no way that was going to happen. And, so, this was a much wiser thing to do.”
“Are you rejecting the conclusions or the accounts that are in this Army report?” Holt asked. “Yes, I am,” Biden replied emphatically. “So, they’re not true,” Holt queried. Biden conspicuously avoided answering the question directly. “I’m rejecting them,” he concluded.
Biden can only “reject” these conclusions because he cannot refute them.
The president has repeatedly claimed that his advisers believed that untold thousands of American soldiers would be required to evacuate American civilians competently, as though that is too high a price to pay to keep Americans from falling behind enemy lines. Regardless, the president is relying on your ignorance. True, we’re not talking about “4,000” troops; we’re talking about 4,500 troops. That was the troop presence that the Afghanistan Study Group recommended the U.S. deploy to ensure the safety of Americans and their allies. Informally, unnamed defense officials estimated that it would take as many as 8,000 uniformed personnel to keep and hold Bagram. That’s more than the 700 American soldiers Biden thought he could get away with leaving in Afghanistan initially, but it’s not much more than the 6,000 U.S. soldiers he eventually had to dispatch to Central Asia after the government collapsed. Was that really the “wiser thing to do?”
Was there ever going to be a unity government in Afghanistan? Based on the negotiations with the Taliban to which both the Biden and Trump administrations committed themselves, no—at least, not one that included the Taliban as just one of many partners. But the 20 years America spent advising and supporting the government in Kabul at least implies the total implosion of the government was not inevitable. That event was precipitated not just by the withdrawal of U.S. troops but the American airpower and civilian contractors who kept the Afghan air force flying. Nor did we have absolutely no choice but to leave Americans behind to fend for themselves—Americans, we are regularly reminded, who are still there. Implicitly, they are hostages of the Taliban regime, but they are joined by a growing list of foreigners (including Americans) who are now explicitly the Taliban’s captives.
Much of this was foreseeable because it was foreseen. And not just outside the halls of American political power. On July 8, Joe Biden told the American public that the Afghan government was unlikely to collapse, and the U.S. embassy insisted it would remain open for the foreseeable future (likely contributing to the complacency of the Americans we subsequently abandoned). But in July, U.S. intelligence agencies “predicted that should the Taliban seize cities, a cascading collapse could happen rapidly and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart,” according to the New York Times. How could they not? The implosion of the Afghan state was occurring in real-time before our very eyes.
The president’s suggestion that a handful of bloggers, think tanks, and op-ed writers predicted what the Pentagon and National Security Council could not beggars belief. If Joe Biden thinks erecting a reality distortion field around the horrors he unleashed upon Afghanistan will save him, he’s only fooling himself.