There has recently been less time to devote to these pages as we do chores left to late summer, among them putting a new coat of stain on our deck. Such chores do provide mind space for reflection.
While the observations of a retired Midwest blogger add little to the avalanche of commentary attending the Taliban’s swift conquest of Afghanistan as America has withdrawn its forces, the final outcome seems all the more tragic because it was so glaringly predictable. In a May post on President Joe Biden’s first 100 days, I stated:
“I would submit that Mr. Biden’s most significant foreign policy failing thus far is his decision to withdraw U.S. Troops from Afghanistan. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Taliban, who oppose the Afghan government we have kept upright, will overrun the country almost as soon as we depart; we leave ourselves more vulnerable to terrorist attacks; we open the door to suppression of Afghan women; and we will appear to have abandoned another set of Middle East allies (remember the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria), further reducing our credibility in the region [Emphasis in Original].”
I didn’t add – perhaps alone, only recently having become aware – that Afghanistan is said to have significant deposits of rare earth minerals required in common high technology instruments, some strategic defense systems, and applications designed to address Climate Change. By our departure we have apparently ceded a seeming counterweight in this arena to China, which the Centre for Strategic and International Studies reports to have approximately two thirds of certain rare earth elements. If still not enough: In The Room Where It Happened (“The Room”), former Trump Administration National Security Advisor John Bolton noted that he cautioned President Donald Trump against withdrawing from Afghanistan in part because he feared that a Taliban takeover might hasten the fall of neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power, to terrorists.
There has been some attempt in the liberal media to place some of the responsibility for our departure on Mr. Trump, since his Administration agreed to the arrangement with the Taliban under which America is withdrawing its forces. (These have concurrence from an odd bedfellow, Mr. Bolton, who commented in The Room: “[Even] after Trump leaves office ….Trump will be responsible for the consequences, politically and militarily.”) I don’t buy it. In a post several years ago, I sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [the actual title of the agreement limiting Iranian nuclear activity (the “JCPOA”)] that the Obama Administration negotiated with the Iranian government – despite the fact that even Democrats now agree that the pact had significant deficiencies — on the fundamental grounds that “we gave our word.” That consideration does not apply to our agreement with the Taliban. The international inspectors monitoring Iran’s JCPOA compliance considered Iran to be in compliance at the time we withdrew. Here, the Taliban have been violating the promises they made to the Trump team from the day they were made. Mr. Biden had ample grounds upon which to have rejected the agreement had he chosen to do so.
There has also been some suggestion that it’s just that we didn’t expect the Taliban to take Afghanistan … this quickly. This is sophism. If we believed that the Taliban was ultimately going to overrun the country, whether it achieved the takeover in a two weeks or six months has no geopolitical strategic significance. (Such miscalculation was obviously of the first importance insofar as our ability to safely evacuate the Afghans who cooperated with us over the years. Here our misreading will likely cost of the lives of thousands who relied on us.)
To his credit, as the situation in Afghanistan worsened, President Biden recited the first maxim of presidential leadership: “The Buck stops with me.” True. He also asserted that the Taliban’s swift takeover has proven that this was going to be the result whenever we left. Most probably true. He has been widely reported to have chafed against our Afghan involvement over the years because he believed that we should have departed Afghanistan as soon as our initial purpose for entering the country – rooting out the interests that supported Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on us – was achieved. Arguably his view once had significant merit. However, it overlooks another precept of presidential leadership: A President must play the hand s/he inherits. I disagree with Mr. Biden’s claim that our departure will end a “Forever War.” Afghanistan was no more than a front in our Forever War.
I would submit that our nation has been in a Forever War since at least September, 1940, more than a year before it formally entered World War II, when it began to provide military aid to England and its allies. President Franklin Roosevelt approved the aid because he realized, notwithstanding most Americans’ complacency born of our ocean buffers, that if Nazi Germany prevailed in Europe, it ultimately would come after us; he did it to prevent our becoming, in his words, “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.” By 1945 we had become the world’s preeminent super power. Since that time, by the very nature of our position, we have been in a Forever War – sometimes hot, sometimes Cold, sometimes via proxy, on military, economic, cyber, advocacy, diplomatic and other battlefronts, and with shifting adversaries, but never truly unchallenged, at peace. Today we remain, despite our failings and missteps, the world’s preeminent power. China, Russia, Iran, and other hostile foreign powers are acutely aware of this, which is why they seek to undermine and supplant us either globally or regionally. I am too much a Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy disciple not to believe that any event that makes us weaker anywhere makes us weaker everywhere.
It has been said that we are right to depart Afghanistan because we could never “win.” We Americans have a subliminal understanding, given the manner in which we threw off a colonial power over 200 years ago, that determined natives will ultimately prevail over a weary outsider. Granting that nation building may have been the misguided vision of the George W. Bush Administration, it’s been clear for over a decade that such was not achievable in Afghanistan. I would nonetheless offer – to use a chess analogy (although all who know me are well aware of how painfully bad I am) – that sometimes achieving a draw is a win. Our small military footprint constituted a bulwark against terrorist groups likely, if unrestrained, to attack us, and against larger powers whose expansion in the region will only make America strategically less safe: Iran, Russia, and to an increasing extent, China. While we could never “win” in Afghanistan, another chess analogy: it is unwise to voluntarily relinquish a square that thwarts an opponent’s advance.
While our Afghan withdrawal isn’t, in my view, anywhere near as colossal a blunder as the G. W. Bush Administration invasion of Iraq, I consider it more detrimental to American interests than either President Barack Obama’s failure to follow through on his warning to move against the Syrian regime if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, or Mr. Trump’s 2019 abandonment of our Kurdish allies, because Mr. Biden’s decision may materially increase the prospect of a terrorist attack(s) on our shores. I also suspect that it is more unnerving to the world community because most understood that Mr. Obama was a foreign policy neophyte and all recognized that Mr. Trump was an untutored loose cannon. Mr. Biden was supposed to know better, be a return to American competence and stability, to understand the use of power and the obligation to help those who have in good faith helped and relied on us. An observation that occurred to me that I have seen reported elsewhere: our precipitous Afghan withdrawal can do nothing but make Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Middle Eastern Gulf States, South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (the latter three Baltic members of NATO on Russia’s doorstep) restive if not outright anxious. In their places, I would be. Our hasty departure has weakened our credibility in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, even within the Americas. I remain confident that we can maintain our preeminent position indefinitely if we act wisely – which has not been the case either domestically or internationally in recent years. Our global advantage is easily squandered if we continue to blunder. In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could look to us for help. Today, there is no one behind us to whom we can look for help.
A couple of very close friends asserted to me recently that as messy as the withdrawal and evacuation have been, Mr. Biden’s decision merely ended a pointless incursion; that with us out of Afghanistan, the region’s terrorist elements will have little remaining interest in us. I hope they are right. I fear they are not. The American people apparently currently largely support our withdrawal, even if they are taken aback by its messy Vietnam-like denouement; I would predict that they will continue to support the withdrawal unless there is a major terrorist attack on our homeland which can be linked to Afghanistan. If there is, American sentiment will turn on a dime. Mr. Biden will not be re-elected.
This has been a dense note – in perhaps more ways than one – but it was actually easier to consider the prospect of America’s waning influence than to dwell on yesterday’s gut-wrenching deaths of our soldiers and Afghans seeking evacuation – at the hands of an ISIS faction, seemingly indicating that we face a continuing threat from that quarter — or on the anguish of the Afghans that will be left in our wake. I believe that all of us reach out to the same God, if through different paths. I pray for them.