Seldom has an American commander in chief spoken with greater conviction than President Biden did when he addressed the nation Tuesday after U.S. troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite the chaotic and bloody scenes from Kabul over the last two weeks, including 13 American military fatalities, and despite the fact that a massive and courageous U.S. military airlift was not enough to rescue every U.S. citizen before the president’s Aug. 31 deadline, Mr. Biden evinced utter certitude that his decision to withdraw was “wise,” and that his administration’s management of the pullout had gone as well as possible under the circumstances. Suffice it to say, we disagree with the president on both points, having previously argued that to maintain a residual force in Afghanistan would have been the least costly of the admittedly bad options — and having forecast disaster should the United States leave this year.
Still, we will grant the president this: He has left no ambiguity as to his moral and political ownership of this searing episode, and its consequences. Every American must hope that subsequent events do, indeed, vindicate his judgment.
The pullout leaves Mr. Biden with an ambitious agenda for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. At the top of it is to prove that leaving Afghanistan will, as he has often asserted, enhance U.S. national security. That objective, in turn, contains two parts: The first is to prevent and fight terrorism effectively from “over the horizon,” via drone strikes and the like, without the benefit of on-the-ground intelligence and overt cooperation with the local government. Events last week — including a horrific suicide bombing by a newly energized Islamic State offshoot in Afghanistan, followed by a U.S. aerial attack on an alleged car bomb that killed many civilians — foreshadow how difficult that may be. Second, Mr. Biden must effectuate the pivot to great power competition with Russia and China that leaving Afghanistan is supposed to facilitate, beginning by restoring confidence among European and Asian allies who were shaken by his handling of the Afghan exit.
Third, and by no means least, Mr. Biden must keep his promise not to abandon the people left behind in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, starting with what may be as many as 200 U.S. citizens but not stopping there: tens of thousands of people with ties to the United States, including Afghan translators and other aides, university students, journalists, judges — the list goes on. “Freedom of travel” for them and others will likely demand complex and lengthy U.S. diplomacy, if it proves possible at all. The Taliban has made commitments to allow its erstwhile enemies to go, but also has a track record of duplicity and revenge.
Perhaps the United States, and the world, are dealing with a new and pragmatic Taliban, in which case Mr. Biden’s job will be easier. Or perhaps the Taliban will revert to its repressive and violent past, split into warring factions — or both. What’s certain is that, no matter how fervently Mr. Biden wishes America to be done with Afghanistan, Afghanistan is not done with America.