The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion History will judge Biden harshly. Biden himself said so.

People run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane in Kabul on Aug. 16. (AP)

President Biden lamented the failure this week of what he described as “our decades-long effort to overcome centuries of history and permanently change and remake Afghanistan.”

Then he made a startling claim. “I wrote and believed it never could be,” he said.

He went further: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building,” the president insisted at the White House on Monday. “It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”

But Biden wrote and believed the opposite. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Biden pressed then-President George W. Bush to spend vastly more on building institutions to promote a unified, centralized democracy.

“History is going to judge us very harshly, I believe, if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we are fearful of the phrase ‘nation-building,’” Biden said in a February 2002 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Biden’s attempt to memory-hole dozens of other sound bites like this illustrates that he was for nation building before he was against it. More significantly, the revisionism is a reminder of Biden’s erratic path on some foreign policy matters and suggests he has internalized the wrong lessons as he surrenders in our longest war. The fall of Kabul doesn’t necessarily discredit nation building; if anything, it underscores the importance of doing it correctly.

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Sen. Biden understood this better than President Biden does. He warned in October 2001 that the United States must not leave Afghanistan to fester after ousting the Taliban. Biden often referenced the power vacuum that developed in Afghanistan after the Soviets fled the country and set the stage for the Taliban to take over.

“I take partial responsibility because I was hanging around in 1988 and ’89 when the last Soviets troops marched out,” he said on MSNBC in October 2001. “When they marched out, we said, ‘Okay. Job done,’ and there was chaos.”

Nation building got a bum rap during the 1990s as U.S. troops deployed to Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans. Bush had promised during the 2000 campaign that he would not use the military to perform peacekeeping missions. “After 9/11, I changed my mind,” Bush wrote in “Decision Points,” his 2010 memoir. “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission.”

Biden’s claim that promoting democracy was never part of the Afghan mission is equally confounding. He was there in 2005 when Bush organized his second inaugural address around the topic. “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” Bush declared, “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

By then, of course, Bush had made the fateful blunder of invading Iraq, which Biden initially supported. This diverted U.S. attention from Afghanistan at a fragile juncture, which allowed corruption and nepotism to poison a fledgling government in Kabul while the Taliban regrouped. The U.S. government structured the Afghan military to depend largely on U.S. contractors and air support. Once Biden pulled that rug out from under them this spring, collapse became inevitable.

Biden points out that he’s keeping a campaign promise to pull out, as well as implementing an agreement that his predecessor, Donald Trump, negotiated with the Taliban. In his address to the nation, Biden highlighted his private opposition to Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to surge troops into Afghanistan. What Biden didn’t say is that he called for more U.S. troops and money in 2008 — only to reverse himself a few months later.

More than anything, Americans lost the will to maintain the minimal troop presence that has largely kept the peace while Afghanistan made the slow and painful transition to democracy. Biden, like Trump before him, follows what polls suggest is the will of the people. In foreign policy, that can be a ruinous game.

Biden visited Kabul in January 2002 just weeks after the Taliban fled. He bunked with Marines in a bombed-out U.S. Embassy that had been abandoned 23 years earlier amid the mayhem caused by the Russian pullout. Dust-coated portraits of Ronald Reagan and George Shultz still hung on the wall.

“After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, America turned its back as the country disintegrated,” Biden said at a hearing after he returned. “President Bush has rightly promised not to repeat this mistake. If we fail to uphold the president’s promise, Afghanistan will again become a den of terrorists, narcotics traffickers and exporters of violent insurgency.”

Today, portraits of Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken hang in a U.S. Embassy that once again has been abandoned. As Sen. Biden foresaw, history will judge President Biden very harshly.

A handful of Americans felt so desperate on 9/11 that they jumped from the twin towers to avoid incineration. This week, some Afghans felt so desperate as the Taliban took over that they tried to ride piggyback on an Air Force cargo plane, from which they fell to their deaths. The sickening videos now serve as bookends to the 9/11 era.