The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden has been a good president. But the exit from Afghanistan has been an epic own-goal.

Taliban forces patrol near the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 31, a day after U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan. (Reuters)
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I had the lowest expectations imaginable for former president Donald Trump, so I was never disappointed by anything he did. Appalled, yes; infuriated, frequently; disappointed, no. It’s different with President Biden. I voted for him not only because I figured he would be better than Trump — thereby clearing a bar that wasn’t even ankle-high — but also because I respected his long experience in government, his centrist track record and his humanity.

For the most part, he has lived up to my elevated expectations with his covid-19 stimulus package and bipartisan infrastructure bill, his rapid rollout of vaccines, his outreach to U.S. allies and his efforts to turn down the temperature on our overheated politics. The one big exception is the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan — an own goal of epic proportions.

Biden defenders insist that he had no choice but to pull out, that the dismaying results aren’t his fault, that the withdrawal is actually a triumph because U.S. troops managed to evacuate more than 122,000 people. I don’t buy it. Yes, Trump left him in a bad spot, but in April, when Biden announced the pullout, the Afghan government still held every city, girls were still going to school, and the Kabul airport wasn’t mobbed by refugees. Now a barbaric movement that remains closely allied with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is in control of a nation of some 39 million people.

Biden deserves credit for getting so many Afghans out, but many more — including students of the American University of Afghanistan — remain trapped in hell. “The thing that everybody needs to understand, even if you completely agree with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw, the way they have handled this has been a total f---ing disaster,” Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass. ) — an honest Democrat — told New York magazine. “It will be measured in bodies, because a lot of people are dying because they can’t get out.”

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What makes this disaster so infuriating is that it was entirely predictable. The U.S. military urged Biden to keep a small troop presence in Afghanistan and the intelligence community warned that a total pullout would lead to a Taliban takeover. President Barack Obama acceded to those concerns, and refused to withdraw U.S. troops before he left office. But Biden didn’t listen. He wanted to get out of Afghanistan in the worst way, and he did.

This again raises questions of Biden’s judgment that had been put to bed during his nearly flawless presidential campaign. In years past, “Uncle Joe” had become a figure of fun in Washington not only because of his logorrhea but also because of his many wrong calls: e.g., opposing the 1991 Gulf War and supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2020, his competence, his caring and his commitment to U.S. international leadership were his calling cards. All three C’s are now called into doubt by his exit from Afghanistan.

No doubt Biden figured that he would have political cover for a risky decision because most of the public favored a withdrawal — and Trump had set it in motion. It’s hard to imagine how such a veteran politico (he has been in federal office for 44 of the past 48 years) could have been so naive. Biden disastrously underestimated the fickleness of the public and the cynicism and opportunism of Republicans, and now he is paying the political price. In the polling average, Biden’s approval rating fell for the first time below 50 percent on Aug. 16 — the day after the Taliban marched into Kabul.

The good news is that it’s still Biden’s first year in office, and he has plenty of time to recover. Other presidents have bounced back after setbacks such as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Libya intervention. Trump actually won more votes in 2020 than in 2016 after more than 230,000 Americans died during his mishandling of a pandemic.

The bad news is that the political pain of Afghanistan could get worse. Imagine what would happen if there were a major terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan, especially on U.S. soil. It wouldn’t even have to be as bad as 9/11 to be deeply damaging to Biden and the Democrats.

Candidate Trump received a big boost from the Dec. 2, 2015, massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., when a husband and wife of Pakistani ancestry who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State gunned down 14 people. Trump’s xenophobic response — he called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — established his brand as a politically incorrect outsider who would keep the United States safe.

That Trump set the withdrawal from Afghanistan into motion won’t stop him and other Republicans from shamelessly blaming Biden for all the consequences of the withdrawal. Heck, they’re doing it already — and their attacks could sway middle-of-the-road voters. The U.S. exit has already extinguished democracy in Afghanistan. Given the increasingly authoritarian tenor of the Republican Party, it could now imperil democracy at home, too.