“The Betrayal,” George Packer’s latest narrative for the Atlantic, is a large and masterful work of journalism that should be read by everyone concerned over the crisis of American leadership in the 21st century. It’s hard to say which of its swirling hellscape of images is most disturbing. Some are visceral, such as the corpses of four babies killed in the mad scrum at the Kabul airport in August, floating in a sewage canal. Some sneak up on you, such as the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs prepared reinforcements for its mental health hotline, in case U.S. troops should be traumatized by social media images of Taliban executions of their former Afghan interpreters. Some are profoundly discouraging, such as the story of the loyal, liberty-loving Afghan man who aided U.S. forces for four years — and waited, in vain, for a U.S. visa for 10 — but picked Canada for his new home because the United States couldn’t be counted on.
Ultimately, those pale beside Packer’s disillusioned portrait of President Biden, who not only allowed these things to happen, but — Packer strongly suggests — chose this shameful final act of the long U.S. war. Biden did not believe the nation owed anything to our friends who risked their lives to help us. A large-scale, orderly evacuation of foreign refugees to American soil would have been bad “optics,” the administration feared, using that peculiar Washington word that describes acute moral blindness.
To be clear: Packer does not blame Biden for the restoration of the Taliban government. His opening sentence is spot on in spreading the responsibility: “It took four presidencies for America to finish abandoning Afghanistan.” Well before Biden was elected, the Trump administration had negotiated a separate peace with the Taliban and set a date for withdrawal of the last U.S. forces. Biden could either honor that agreement or risk renewed Taliban attacks on American troops in a war the public no longer supported.
The indictment takes aim at the apparently willful failure to offer an orderly exit from Afghanistan for combat interpreters, embassy support staff, intelligence informants and so on. Many of these individuals have been denounced as traitors and are at risk of death — if they haven’t been killed already.
Biden is quoted saying more than once that the United States had no duty to protect those who relied on or worked beside us. And so advocates of honorable assistance met one brick wall after another. A proposal to relocate Afghans to the U.S. territory of Guam while processing their visa applications went nowhere. Bipartisan delegations of U.S. veterans beseeched the White House for action — but concluded that they were being ignored. Further, they surmised that, considering the multitude of humanitarian policy promoters at senior levels in the administration, the cold shoulder could only be coming from the very top.
Packer writes: “If, on the way out of Afghanistan, America broke its promises to people at great risk of revenge killings, its already battered international reputation would be further damaged. Such a failure would also injure the morale of American troops, who were now staring at a lost war, and whose code of honor depended on leaving no one behind.
“The advocates omitted one person from their calculations: the president.”
Though no one from the White House would say so on the record, Packer reports that Biden’s people continue to claim there was no way they could have foreseen how quickly the Taliban would complete its takeover. But it was foreshadowed, notably by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker in March of last winter. His report portrayed a robust Taliban and an Afghan government already collapsing. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan’s highways, operated de facto governments in the provinces and maintained an open, armed presence even in the capital, Kabul. Meanwhile, the Afghan army couldn’t fill its ranks even by dangling money, and the public had given up on the corrupt administration of feckless Ashraf Ghani, the former president who fled the country.
Failure to plan equals planning to fail, the saying goes — and it was true. Biden’s failure to plan for an honorable, orderly retreat from Afghanistan produced the very scenes of chaos and abandonment he had hoped to avoid.
Packer also weighs the White House claim that, however ugly it might have been, the airlift from Kabul was ultimately a great success. By one estimate, he reports, 90 percent of Afghans eligible for relocation were left behind. Most of those who did get out were rescued only by the initiative of conscience-stricken troops and diplomats in Kabul, and by a loose network of tireless volunteers working around-the-clock stateside.
Biden’s approval rating plunged during the days so grippingly recounted in Packer’s article. So far, it hasn’t recovered. The more one learns about the pullout from Afghanistan, and the willful betrayal of our friends, the more perceptive and just that judgment appears.