President Biden had a tricky task on Tuesday as he spoke to the nation about the end of the United States’s 20-year military operation in Afghanistan. Unlike the pundits, consultants, think tank gurus and paid military advisers who have sustained the fiction that the United States was building a stable Afghan government, Biden is accountable to the voters. He therefore had to reassert the case for ending the war and defend the way he handled the exit.
As he began, he sounded pugnacious if not angry. “I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not going to extend a forever exit,” he said. He praised U.S. troops and diplomats who risked their lives to save more than 120,000 lives, impressing upon Americans the magnitude of the evacuation effort. For critics who point to thousands of Afghans who will live in misery, he explained that no country has done more to airlift allies to safety after losing a war. Regarding Americans still there, he argued there is “no deadline” to get them out. Getting those Americans out will be vital to retaining his credibility.
He then launched into a point-by-point rebuttal of his critics’ main claims. “Some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner, and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner. I respectfully disagree.” The chaos would have started then, he argued. He also insisted that “there is no evacuation you can run at the end of a war without the complexities, challenges, threats we faced, none.” His concession that the projection for how long the Afghan government and military would be able to hold was “inaccurate” will go down as a world-class understatement.
Speaking to critics who argue the United States could’ve secured Afghanistan at low cost and low risk, he said, “I don’t think enough people understand how much we’ve asked of the one percent of this country who put that uniform on.” This was both Biden the president and Biden the father speaking. He understands how the war chewed through American lives and families for no discernible gain. “There is nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war,” he said.
Those who have already decided they know better will call him “defiant” or “defensive.” Americans watching from home may see something different: An unvarnished and unsparing explanation of the last two weeks. A president from time to time must defend his decisions (though Biden also left no doubt that his choices were circumscribed by the deal negotiated by the previous administration that empowered the Taliban and let loose thousands of terrorists). The speech was one of the most forceful of his career, as much laying out the rationale for his own actions as an indictment of the mind-set that supports indefinite wars whose cost is borne by others. For a White House on defense for two weeks, this was as robust a defense as one could imagine.
His argument that the United States does not have a “vital national interest” in keeping a force in Afghanistan will resonate with many voters — provided he prevents attacks on the homeland and evacuates those who want out. Toward the end of the speech, he became more philosophical, stressing that interminable wars designed to remake countries are done. That is a theme that most Americans will agree with.
In promising to turn our attention to more vital interests and set attainable goals when we do use force, he attempted to bookend 20 years of war with the notion that government had to deploy forces to protect the homeland. He ended with a poignant appeal: “As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it’s time to look at the future, not the past. … I give my word with all of my heart: I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision and the best decision for America.”
The good news for Biden is that a significant majority (54 percent in the most recent Pew Research poll) approve of the withdrawal. But opinion on Biden’s performance is decidedly more mixed. Pew reports: “about a quarter (26%) say the administration has done an excellent or good job; 29% say the administration has done an only fair job and 42% say it has done a poor job.” Given the unremittingly negative and often hysterical coverage, that probably comes as a relief to the White House.
Right-wing critics are already predicting another 9/11, the collapse of NATO and the wasting away of the United States’s international influence in their desperation to prove Biden wrong. But our allies show no sign they would prefer to navigate a dangerous world without us. A more accurate prediction for Afghanistan will likely be an unremitting civil war with outside backers, akin to the conflict in Yemen. The final verdict on Biden’s performance will likely come if his “over the horizon” counterterrorism policy prevents future attacks and rescues those who want out of Afghanistan.
Still, Biden would do well to examine his own administration’s performance. Who failed to anticipate and fully plan for the immediate demise of the Afghan government? Could the special immigrant visa process have been accelerated earlier?
More broadly, we need to understand how a war built on wishful thinking and cultural ignorance could grind on for two decades and why our intelligence community consistently gets really big issues wrong (from failing to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union to the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). If we do not address these more fundamental problems, we will repeat the errors of Afghanistan just as certainly as we repeated the errors of Vietnam in Afghanistan.