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Opinion What Biden learned from Afghanistan

President Biden, right, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 7. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine so far suggests he’s learned some important lessons from his failures in Afghanistan.

Rather than hoping for the best and planning for the best, as he did in Afghanistan, Biden’s administration has prepared for worst-case scenarios in Ukraine. The president is listening to the Pentagon, consulting with allies, deploying troops ahead of events, and bracing the American people for potentially dispiriting days ahead.

One of the surprising takeaways from the fiasco in Afghanistan might be that Biden has learned that secrecy is not a president’s friend. Biden foolishly agreed last year when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked the United States to hold off on evacuating people from his country so as not to precipitate a crisis of confidence. That decision — to keep the eventual U.S. departure quiet — led to panic and much worse when the Taliban took over. The disastrous repercussions of the U.S. pullout crushed Biden’s standing in the polls, which has yet to recover.

An Army investigation into last summer’s deadly debacle, obtained this week by The Post, details how problematic it was for the administration to play down the threat posed by the resurgent Taliban and to assume that the U.S. Embassy would stay operational no matter what happened. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Farrell J. Sullivan wanted to stage enough supplies to host 5,000 evacuees at the Kabul airport by mid-July, but he was not permitted to even discuss the possibility of an evacuation with anyone other than British officials.

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By hushing up its departure plans, the administration made the end of the 20-year war all the more bitter.

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Perhaps that’s why Biden hasn’t shown similar deference to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in recent months. Zelensky has publicly chastised Biden for being alarmist about the threat from Russia. He was incensed when the State Department removed nonessential personnel and the families of diplomats from Kyiv because the move suggested the Americans believe his capital might soon fall. Zelensky fears the departure will chill foreign investment and weaken his currency. He insists that Ukraine is in no greater danger today than any time since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

That’s clearly delusional. It’s not Biden who is making Ukraine jittery. It is Vladimir Putin’s troops massed along the border. But this time, Biden isn’t trying to keep things quiet.

On Thursday, Russia will begin its largest “training exercise” in Belarus since the Cold War — with 30,000 troops in position to invade Ukraine from the north and six large landing vessels moving through the Black Sea for a potential amphibious assault. Polish President Andrzej Duda says this is “the most difficult” situation his country has faced “since 1989.”

One of the most damaging criticisms of Biden last summer was that he kept European allies who had assisted for years with the war effort in Afghanistan in the dark about his planned withdrawal. Amid the Ukraine crisis, the president has corrected course. He has coordinated closely with many of the same leaders he snubbed last year. And he deployed 3,000 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to protect NATO’s eastern flank.

This reversal paid dividends on Monday when Biden announced, alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, that a Russian invasion would “put an end” to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. The pipeline is a vital economic lifeline for Russia; any move to close it would remind Putin that he will pay a higher price for invading Ukraine than when he annexed Crimea eight years ago.

Scholz, who succeeded Angela Merkel in December, hasn’t gone as far as Biden publicly, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says Scholz assured him and other senators privately over dinner this week that the pipeline won’t go ahead if Moscow sends forces deeper into Ukraine. Unlike last August, the United States and its allies are moving mostly in sync.

This is not to say Biden has nailed every step. He projected weakness by opposing sanctions on Nord Stream 2 last year, which made Germany more susceptible to Russian pressure. He went dangerously off script at a news conference last month when he suggested that the U.S. might tolerate a “minor incursion,” by Russia into Ukraine, though the president cleaned up his comments the next day.

Biden has lately worked to deny Putin maneuvering room. Western intelligence services, including the British, have been transparent about suspected Russian plots to create pretexts for war, sharing more information than governments typically do in the weeks leading up to a likely conflict. This has limited — but hardly halted — Putin’s options for trouble-making.

Nothing can fully prepare someone for the learning curve that comes with being president, even a 79-year-old who spent eight years as an understudy and 36 years in the Senate. If Biden manages to curb Putin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe, the people of Ukraine can thank the comeuppance the president received last year in Afghanistan.

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