The theme of Biden’s speech seemed to be: Well, it wasn’t, but it also wasn’t our fault.
Biden laid the blame for that mostly at the feet of Afghans — of many stripes. He called out by name President Ashraf Ghani and fellow Afghan leader Abdullah Abdullah.
“We talked about how Afghanistan should prepare to fight their civil wars after the U.S. military departed, to clean up the corruption in government so the government could function for the Afghan people,” Biden said. “We talked extensively about the need for Afghan leaders to unite politically. They failed to do any of that.”
Biden added: “I also urged them to engage in diplomacy, to seek a political settlement with the Taliban. This advice was flatly refused.”
And: “Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong.”
Biden’s comments might have left one with the impression that this last assurance was taken at face value. But the U.S. intelligence community is tasked with reaching its own conclusions about these things, and it too — along with top Biden administration officials — seemed to invest far too much confidence in the Afghan military’s and leaders’ ability and will to fend off the Taliban.
“The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden conceded at one point, stating the obvious.
Then he added: “So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”
Biden’s comments about Ghani’s and Abdullah’s failures to heed his advice also invite the question: Why is this coming up now? These were obviously situations that played out over time. If Afghanistan’s leaders were failing to deliver, maybe that should have been emphasized or at least planned for before the situation fell apart so spectacularly?
Biden also laid blame on the Afghans for another significant problem with the withdrawal: the lack of evacuations for those who assisted the United States — and whose lives are now imperiled by the Taliban takeover.
“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
This is a massive issue moving forward that will invite review. Biden did not explicitly say that these instances account for the majority of those who have not been evacuated, but he sure suggested these were the key issues. And once the fog of war has cleared, we’ll see how Biden’s explanation holds up.
Biden also took care in his speech to offer the latest in a string of volleys between his team and its predecessors in the Trump administration. The two sides until recently fought for credit over the Afghanistan withdrawal but now are seeking to blame the other for it falling apart.
Biden contended that he had been hamstrung by former president Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban to withdraw the United States by May 1. Biden pushed back that deadline by a few months, to Sept. 11, but he said Monday that more of a delay would have required an escalation with an impatient adversary, thanks to its deal with Trump.
“After May 1st, there was no status quo of stability without American casualties,” Biden said. “After May 1st, there was only a core reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan.”
In this claim, Biden has some support — from none other than Trump. In June, when the two sides were still fighting for credit for the departure from Afghanistan, Trump said: “I started the process. All the troops are coming home. They couldn’t stop the process. … They couldn’t stop the process. They wanted to, but it was very tough to stop the process.”
But again, this is somewhat beside the point. Withdrawal was happening and has been for many months. The issue is how it was handled and the assurances and prognostications the Biden administration provided about how it would play out. The rapidity of the Taliban takeover was largely cast as unthinkable — in a way that suggests there wasn’t as much care in the withdrawal as there might otherwise have been.
The story of how all of this played out will be written in the months and years to come. Biden clearly wants the headline to be the buck stopping with him, while seeding all kinds of arguments for why it actually doesn’t.