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Opinion Twenty years of Afghanistan mistakes, but this preventable disaster is on Biden

The Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15. The Pentagon said up to 6,000 U.S. troops will deploy to the airport to evacuate U.S. personnel. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Pundits (including me) love to praise bipartisanship in public policy. The calamity in Afghanistan shows the dark side of bipartisanship: This was a disaster that was produced by four administrations, two Republican (George W. Bush, Donald Trump) and two Democratic (Barack Obama, Joe Biden).

President Bush bumbled, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, in failing to focus on building a capable Afghan government and military — and instead, pivoting scarce resources to a war of choice in Iraq. President Obama bumbled in ordering a troop surge with a deadline that encouraged the Taliban to wait U.S. forces out. President Trump bumbled in negotiating a troop withdrawal deal that resulted in the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners despite a total lack of progress in peace talks. And now President Biden has bumbled in hewing to Trump’s deal even though the Taliban did not. (They never broke with al-Qaeda as they had vowed to do.)

But while 20 years of mistakes had a cumulative impact, there was nothing inevitable about the outcome: The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan less than a month before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Strengthened by the copious U.S. weaponry they have captured — and by the prestige that comes with having humbled a superpower — the Taliban will now be more dangerous than ever. This is on Biden, and it will leave an indelible stain on his presidency.

The words that Biden uses to describe the delta variant — a “largely preventable tragedy that will get worse before it gets better” — apply to his handling of Afghanistan. Former defense secretary Robert Gates once said that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” He has certainly been calamitously, tragically, wrong about Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Afghanistan drawdown while Republicans criticized the White House for its actions in the country on Aug. 15. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Recall that on July 8, Biden said: “The Taliban is not the … North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of [an] embassy … from Afghanistan.”

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Precisely 38 days later, giant U.S. helicopters were seen over the skies of Kabul evacuating the U.S. Embassy. This is the worst U.S. foreign policy failure since the fall of Saigon in 1975 — worse even than the fall of Mosul, Iraq, in 2014 to the Islamic State, another disaster that might have been averted by keeping a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Biden’s attempt to dodge responsibility for this fiasco in his statement on Saturday was utterly unconvincing. He attempted to dump the blame on Trump, noting that he had inherited an agreement that called for a U.S. withdrawal by May 1. This was, indeed, a terrible deal — but the Taliban were not abiding by it, so Biden was not obligated to do so either.

Biden’s statement suggested a false choice, to either “follow through on the deal” or send “more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.” But no one was seriously suggesting that the United States commit more combat forces to Afghanistan. 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.

“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Biden insisted. That’s only true if it was inevitable that the U.S. military would pull out. But U.S. forces are still present in far larger numbers in countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea after more than 70 years. There was nothing foreordained about the withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. advisers in Afghanistan. Indeed, the United States is maintaining a similar-size mission in Iraq with almost no controversy.

Many argued that a mere 2,500 U.S. troops could make no difference. The history of the past few months repudiates this view: The final Taliban offensive began only when the U.S. troop pullout was nearly complete. For 20 years, U.S.-trained Afghan forces have gotten used to operating with the support of U.S. airpower, intelligence, advisers and other enablers. Their precipitous withdrawal beginning in April — at the start of the Afghan fighting season — led to a predictable unraveling of Afghan forces. Even some who support the withdrawal concede that Biden’s execution of it has been an “unmitigated disaster.”

Biden cannot claim ignorance of what was to come. He was amply warned by the U.S. intelligence community. I am no seer (and goodness knows, like Biden, I have been wrong about plenty), but immediately upon hearing of Biden’s withdrawal plan I wrote a column whose headline was: “Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal could be the first step to a Taliban takeover.”

The only thing I did not anticipate — no one did — was how rapidly the unraveling would occur. Even last Monday, the U.S. military was warning that it would be 30 to 90 days before Kabul fell. Now, six days later, it has fallen, and Biden will spend the rest of his presidency grappling with the tragic consequences of this preventable disaster.