Taliban Resurgence: Biden’s Humiliating Failure
“It’s not just a military catastrophe, it’s a humanitarian catastrophe – and we really need to focus now on the suffering of tens of millions of Afghans who’ve been plunged by a very reckless and unnecessary decision by President Biden, into misery.” – former UK International Development Minister, Rory Stewart
SB Veda <Calcutta>
As city after city fell like dominos before the Taliban streamed from all sides into Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, all US President Biden saw fit to do was order some 1000 additional soldiers into the city to protect American officials as they hurriedly evacuated their missions. One could scarcely imagine a worse humiliation for a new president who campaigned on a policy promising to ensure that Taliban and other extremists are prevented from gaining a foothold in the beleaguered Muslim nation. Not only did that fail to come to pass, but also with twenty years of progress on democratic representation, education, and women’s rights on the brink of total reversal and a sacrifice of 6,000 US servicepersons (not to mention the 100,000 Afghans) who died now seemingly for nothing – this amounts to a total foreign policy failure on the part of Joe Biden.
Beleaguered Afghans watched in astonishment as the US took control of Kabul airport on Sunday after news of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s abandoning of the presidential palace, had permeated the city. The military boarded US citizens and especially vulnerable Afghans on to flights out of the war-torn country. Meanwhile, others – many of whom fear a return to the Islamic theocracy dating back to the Taliban’s first government – voiced their frustration as all other commercial flights stood grounded, stranding them in the city.
As military planes readied for liftoff, chaos ensued. Throngs of passengers climbed up boarding staircases, some even hanging on to the wheels as one plane lifted off. At least two people fell from the sky trying hitch a ride on a military jet. The extent of the desperation was nothing short of heartbreaking.
Some managed to pack into a military plane. A startling image was released showing six hundred and forty Afghans packed like sardines on a US military transport plane.
With most senior officials in flight mode, only the acting interior minister, Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, remained to reassure residents that the city was secure. He claimed that negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and government officials had yielded an agreement on the peaceful transfer of power even as the Taliban grabbed the presidential palace and demanded unconditional surrender of the government.
Despite assurances, the situation on the ground remained uncertain into Tuesday. One former translator for the Canadian military described the situation as turbulent and lawless. “We went to the (unintelligible) campus, and they didn’t let us inside, so we are hiding,” a man requesting anonymity, told The Globe and Mail. “We left our house,” he continued. “And we’re hiding in my uncle(sic) house. And the situation is very danger (sic) in here (sic) in Kabul. We are hiding and everywhere attacks are going on, and we can hear (gun)fire and a lot of stuff. So, I hope somebody should help us in this situation.”
The Taliban advance had begun less than ten days ago and not long after the Unites States pulled their air support and command & control infrastructure from the hapless Afghan military. Absent the threat of US airstrikes, the Taliban blitzed through villages, captured cities, and took over provinces on the way to Kabul, leaving it by Saturday night, an island a sea of Taliban.
Today, facing a stormy backlash over such a rapid reversal of coalition fortunes, Joe Biden expressed surprise but defiantly defended the decision to pull out. He said: “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
He took the opportunity, though, to blame his predecessor, Donald Trump for striking a deal to pull out troops by May 1st, which he claimed had forced his hand – a statement belied by the fifteen executive orders he had signed since assuming office in January, reversing Trump policies. It left many wondering why the Biden Administration hadn’t coordinated a strategic withdrawal over time with NATO allies. Absent a carefully planned coordinated withdrawal, around 10,000 troops from coalition nations including the UK, also arranged an abrupt pullout.
Some experts wondered why Biden tied himself to the non-binding agreement, especially when the Taliban had already violated the ceasefire components. They’ve also shown bad faith on the aspects of the deal that involve preservation of women’s rights. Moreover, by changing the deadline for troop withdrawal, hadn’t Biden already opened the door to break the agreement?
Biden’s statements are juxtaposed with demands from Republican lawmakers in the USA for an investigation, saying the alarming images and video released after the capital fell illustrate “the embarrassment of a superpower brought low.”
Amidst backlash, Biden defiantly defends Afghanistan pullout
According to Polictico.com, after Biden took office, United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and senior generals implored the president to leave a small force of roughly 3,000 troops to continue counterterrorism operations and as leverage to force the Taliban to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government. The investment would have made little difference to the US military. Biden, perennially mistrustful of the military, ignored this advice.
Indeed, keeping air support intact would have been key to preventing the Taliban advance.
Former UK MP, Rory Stewart who also held that country’s international development portfolio and has worked with NGOs in Afghanistan called the withdrawal by the West shameful. “It’s heartbreaking,” Stewart told CNN on Monday. “It’s not just a military catastrophe, it’s a humanitarian catastrophe – and we really need to focus now on the suffering of tens of millions of Afghans who’ve been plunged by a very reckless and unnecessary decision by President Biden, into misery.”
With the situation blowing up, the Biden administration started playing the blame game, pointing fingers at a demoralized Afghan military for not fighting. The reality is that they had been functioning in step with the Americans for over a decade, now, and with the rug pulled out beneath them, they couldn’t cope with a swift and determined enemy, supported militarily by a committed neighbour in Pakistan, whose reach had already permeated villages at the grassroots level.
“I think it’s very sad over the last few days, in Europe and the United States, of people putting blame on the Afghans, somehow suggesting this is their fault,” Stewart remarked. He continued: “But there is literally no coincidence between the fact that we removed the air power and command mechanisms behind the Afghan National Army a few weeks ago, and it’s allowed the Taliban to capture most of the country in a matter of days.”
When questioned about the contributing factor of corruption of the Afghan government, Stewart said that it’s similar to problems faced by countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria. “But what makes Afghanistan different is that we were able to contain the Taliban for 20 years; we were able to allow improvements in millions of lives, girls going to school, extraordinary transformations…we’ve seen incredible changes in people’s lives. Kabul is unrecognizable to what I saw 20 years ago – it’s 10 times the size, it’s full of vigorous educated Afghan people who want to connect with the world. And, we were doing it with a tiny (military) presence.”
Stewart opined that the decision, which was in his view entirely unnecessary, was calculated to create some kind of false achievement by Biden to tout in advance of the mid-term elections. Petty politics, he claimed, had won out over the long-term strategic objective of nation building and humanitarian concerns over the consequences of a Taliban takeover.
One of the dire outcomes of the Taliban’s return is a likely reversal in the status of women. Young women had been permitted to go to school, college, had entered the workforce, and were advancing to becoming on par with their Western counterparts in terms of opportunity – especially in Kabul.
Already, ominous signs of a sharp turn backwards have been observed.
Agence 24 reports: “As the capital city falls into the hands of Islamist insurgents, numerous reports have emerged of the Taliban going door-to-door, drafting lists of women and girls aged between 12 and 45 years who are then forced to marry Islamist fighters. Women are being told they cannot leave home without a male escort, can no longer work or study or freely choose the clothes they want to wear. Schools, too, are being closed.”
For Biden, this is of little concern. Never a torchbearer for women, a testy Biden as Vice-President shouted at former US special envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke in a meeting in 2010 that, “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!”
Holbrooke went on to chronicle in his memoir that Biden, long a critic of the Afghan war effort, was keen on getting out of Afghanistan that same year. When Holbrooke commented that an abrupt departure would spur a humanitarian crisis, Biden showed his callous disregard of the people whom the US had ostensibly gone in to protect: “Fuck that,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about that…we did it in Vietnam and Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”
Some observers noted that people shouldn’t be surprised at Biden’s cynical indifference: ever the careerist in the senate, as far back as 1975, Biden voted against a proposed US Congress appropriation to fund airlifting South Vietnamese out of harm’s way at the close of the Vietnam war. In 45 years, his attitude just hasn’t changed. “He’s a stubborn old man,” said one anonymous Pentagon official. “He was never a student of history, and never understood what is involved in the long-term project of nation-building….This is proof positive that going on junkets and shaking hands with foreign leaders does not a foreign policy expert make.”
Stewart’s interview with CNN echoes in response: “President Biden is pretending that this is another Vietnam. But the truth is, in the early part of this year, there were only 2,500 troops being kept in Afghanistan. There were no casualties being suffered by the UK, US or others. We were in a situation in which we were providing very light air support; we could have kept doing that indefinitely.”
Flashback: May 1st, 2009
It was a tense moment in the White House Situation Room in the wee hours of May 1st/2nd, 2009 as President Barack Obama and his most trusted officials watched the raid on the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, which had been found to house Public Enemy No. 1 – Osama bin Laden. It was a gutsy decision for a novice president with scant little experience in military affairs.
In the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, relying on local fighters, the American and coalition armed forces had let bin Laden slip away from his hideout in the mountains of Tora Bora. Finally, the military had bin Laden in their sights. Obama could have chosen a surgical air strike but with the probability of civilian casualties and the devastation of a bombing sure to call into question the veracity of the kill, the American president decided to deploy a commando squad to capture/kill the terrorist. A defining moment of his presidency, despite odds of success compared to a coin toss, Obama’s decision was correct. Bin Laden was killed, and his body recovered; there were no American casualties – the mission was a resounding success.
Unfortunately for then Vice-President Joe Biden, he could not claim any part of the credit, for Biden, despite his apparent experience in international affairs, had counselled Obama against the mission. A fixture of the Washington establishment and witness to former President Carter’s disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran in a 1980 mission called Desert One, Biden advised caution.
“Joe weighed in against the raid,” Obama wrote in his memoir, A Promised Land, about the discussion that preceded of the commando operation.
Hailed as a foreign policy expert by democrats during the 2020 campaign (Joe Biden was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee from 1997-2009, serving as chairman for several years) Joe Biden has largely failed to be on the right side of history in international affairs. Indeed, Obama’s Defence Secretary, Robert Gates voiced as much in his memoir, Duty, accusing Biden of being wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Notably Biden was against Obama’s 2009 plan to send 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan to contain a reconstituting Taliban (“the Surge”).
Commenting to the BBC, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US summed Biden’s Afghan policy up aptly: “He (Biden) always said, ‘our fight is about Al Qaeda and not the Taliban.’ I always thought it (his position) was naïve.”
Biden has said that the Taliban is not the enemy of the United States, a view echoed by their patrons, Pakistan.
Long a friend of Pakistan, and one of two senators to be honoured by that country, Senator Joe Biden was their unofficial spokesperson to congress for decades. As Vice-President, he argued for increased sales of weapons for Pakistan, which for which the Pakistani generals had been advocating during the Bush administration after the sale of F-16 fighter jets were halted over fears that Pakistan was surreptitiously helping the Taliban while ostensibly acting as US ally in the region.
Indeed, Pakistan’s military continued working to help the Afghan Taliban regroup as an insurgency to keep the United States in check and repair their broken influence in Afghanistan.
The situation came to a head in 2008 when then President Hamid Karsai urged then Vice President Biden to pressurize Pakistan to stop helping the Taliban and order a rooting out of Pakistani-aided Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Biden responded that Pakistan was 50 times more important to the US than Afghanistan.
The irony is that Biden’s support of military aid to Pakistan most certainly burnished the Taliban’s arsenal and improved their position in Afghanistan against the US.
This was long known by those on the inside of Pakistan’s ubiquitous intelligence agency, the ISI. Former director of the agency, Hamid Gul on a popular talk show commented on this as far back as 2014.
“When history is written,” declared General Gul, “it will be stated that the I.S.I. defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America…Then there will be another sentence,” Gul paused effect. “The I.S.I., with the help of America, defeated America.”
More aptly, Gul might have said that the ISI with the help of Joseph R. Biden Jr., defeated America.