The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Past presidents left a mess in Afghanistan — but Biden owns the current calamity

President Biden listens to a reporter's question on Aug. 26 at the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

When Donald Trump was president, I criticized him from time to time, and often I heard from his supporters some version of: “What about Hillary?” My answer was simple. Trump was the president. Hillary Clinton was not.

The president bakes in the hottest spotlight, regardless of party. Now that Joe Biden is president, he’s on the griddle. The job has upsides. You live in a mansion. You have a valet and a chef. You travel on a fancy helicopter to board the world’s coolest airplane. You command the world’s most advanced military, and a band plays every time you walk into a room. If the combined labors of an entire nation create prosperity, you can claim the credit.

The downside comes when bad stuff happens. The president is both the rooster boasting of the fine sunrise he created, and the scapegoat bearing the sins of the whole flock.

One would think that after a half-century in Washington, Biden would have internalized this truth and done a bit more to minimize the ugliness of Afghanistan. He would have seen the hot potato hurtling toward him and put on oven mitts. George W. Bush passed his failed nation-building project off to Barack Obama. Obama cranked it up, then dialed it back and dished it off to Trump. Trump surrendered to the Taliban at Doha, but managed to delay the rough end of the bargain beyond the range of his own responsibility.

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Biden simply reached up and grabbed the potato with both bare hands, seemingly heedless of how it would burn.

That’s not a virtue in a leader, though Biden presents himself as a Gary Cooper president bravely watching the clock strike high noon. Nothing with “heedless” in the description is good leadership. Biden and his defenders argue that this ignominious end in Afghanistan is the best anyone could have hoped for: this chaos, these deaths.

To prepare prudently before bugging out would only have made things worse, they tell us. Simple steps, such as collecting the names and locations of Americans in the country into the best possible database, might have upset people. Expediting paperwork for loyal and endangered Afghans could have created a panic. Threatening some deterrent bombing to slow the overeager Taliban might only have dragged us back in. Squeezing Pakistan to pour less gas on the fire — it has been cashing U.S. checks for two decades while sustaining the Taliban at the same time — well, maybe it was tried. The New York Times reported in June that CIA Director William J. Burns had recently been in Islamabad to discuss the impending withdrawal, but I’d feel better if I knew he was there in January.

Not to pick on Burns. Where’s the evidence of any senior official foreseeing the calamity of recent weeks and moving urgently last winter to prepare for worst cases? Did anyone say: “This could be even trickier than wooing Joe Manchin; maybe we ought to make it a priority”?

So Biden owns this, just as Bush owned the accumulated intelligence failures that led to 9/11; just as Jimmy Carter owned the Iranian revolution that was 30 years in the making; just as Gerald Ford owned the last chopper out of Saigon a generation after Harry S. Truman sent the first Americans in.

Even so, it is unseemly for veterans of past administrations to fan the flames roasting Biden after failing in their own time to resolve this mess. In their excesses, many are misleading the public as to the situation in Afghanistan when Biden took office — perhaps they don’t know it themselves. The country was not secure. The conflict was not stable. The skeleton force of 2,500 remaining U.S. troops was neither safe nor sufficient to repel the Taliban’s promised spring offensive.

The Taliban controlled the entire Afghan countryside, including its network of roads. Military posts intended to defend the cities could be supplied only by airlift, and the lifts conducted by Afghan government forces were so completely corrupted that few supplies got through. Morale among Afghan troops was generally poor. Atop this sad heap sat President Ashraf Ghani, moony-eyed, aloof and ineffective.

Under Obama, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan surged to more than 100,000 — and even that enormous number did not defeat the Taliban, who simply melted into the populace or slipped through mountain passes to wait us out in Pakistan. We can now see with brutal clarity that the wispy force of a few thousand in place as Trump left office was not even enough to keep an airport secure, much less the whole country.

Biden inherited the strongest Taliban and the smallest U.S. force in the war’s history. That was a very poor hand to play. That he has played his poor hand so poorly is now part of his presidential legacy. Sometimes, it’s hell to be chief.