While a majority of Americans say they continue to react poorly to an apparent lack of planning in the hastened, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, maybe we should be looking more closely at the distinctly Republican attempt to politicize the efforts of the Biden administration to quickly organize an unprecedented airlift rescue of 120,000 under fire as a disastrous failure.
Those same polls say we should be out of Afghanistan.
Americans are reacting to images that are embarrassing not to executing U.S. strategy.
No one, including Team Biden, would argue against the argument that withdrawal should have gone better, for all the reasons that by now we can all recount. The Afghan government and army collapsed, and within several days, created conditions that made a pullout of military and civilians dangerous and nearly impossible.
No one, including Team Biden, disputes that perhaps 100 to 200 individuals holding U.S. citizenship, shared citizenship, or special status for expedited removal, remain in Afghanistan. What Biden and company dispute is whether various diplomatic and economic levers will suffice to get those people, at least those who want out, a chance to leave under Taliban aegis.
Somehow, magically, the argument is, we should have poured more U.S. troops in, one way or another, to have them stay until all who wanted out – perhaps 300,000 Afghan citizens whom many in the U.S. don't want to provide a new home – could be airlifted out with no harm even from rogue Taliban forces or unaffiliated terrorists who showed us with a bomb and other threats that they were not heeding any Taliban orders any more than quaking under threat of American weapons.
But missing in the various explanations is a quick look back at the last two years, when Donald Trump, who now insists that any Afghan pullout he had worked out with the Taliban would be conditioned by events on the ground, pulled out from Syria and Iraq. That rewrite of recent history by Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a bevy of Republican congressional leaders whose opinions were not part of any practical discussions towards pullouts, rather overlooks Trump's history here – which is still fresh in memory.
That withdrawal in Syria and Iraq abandoned Kurds – American allies in the fight against the Islamic caliphate – in the face of oncoming conflicts with the Turks, who historically have seen the Kurds as domestic rebels, if not terrorists. It will be interesting how Trump retells his own story as his all-but certain candidacy emerges.
In other words, can we look at what happened?
In October 2019, Trump, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper basically declared victory over an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq and ordered a withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria. About 1,000 American troops, mostly Special Operations forces, left quickly, following a period in which the Pentagon had slow-walked compliance with Trump's directions to move towards withdrawal, remaining inside Iraq or southern Syria.
But the decision drew criticism, now apparently forgotten, that doing so effectively ceded control of the area to the Syrian government, Russia, and the Turks, and resulted in abandoning the Kurds, America's allies in actual combat in the area. By comparison, the current debate involves rescue of local Afghans who worked as interpreters, drivers, clerical help, and cooks. There was no airlift at all of civilians who had worked with the U.S. forces; indeed, Trump barred Syrian immigration totally.
And, critics made clear, the abandonment of the area would allow renegade, fleeing ISIS fighters to regroup elsewhere to fight another day. That's exactly the current week's criticism for Biden returning Afghanistan to a would-be teeming training ground for international terrorists, including those same fleeing ISIS fighters.
Whatever rebound terrorists might make, one thing was clear: American forces would not be coming to the aid of their Kurdish allies in the face of the Turkish-backed offensive. Trump defended the abandonment, saying he was fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from "endless war" in the Middle East (familiar?), "appearing largely unconcerned at the prospect of Turkish forces attacking the Kurds, who include a faction he described as "natural enemies" of the Turks," and saying he would use economic leverage over the Turks to keep Turks from killing too many Kurds. He didn't.
How are we supposed to take current Republican criticism seriously now when they left American allies to die on the same battlefield?
Setting Up Afghan Problems
In November 2020, right after the election, the Trump White House announced that it would pull thousands of troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan by Jan. 15. In January 2021, as the new administration was just coming in, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that the U.S. had withdrawn forces in Iraq and Afghanistan down to 2,500 in each war zone.
It was an unusual major policy shift announced during a lame duck period, clearly setting up problems for the incoming Biden administration.
It also was a change that defied clear instructions from Congress in its broadly bipartisan military budget bill not to use that money to withdraw forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq below 4,000 without providing clear evidence to Congress about the viability of the plan.
In February 2020, Pompeo and Trump completed a negotiation with the Taliban, after even considering inviting the Taliban leaders to Camp David. So much for outrage over Biden now talking with the Taliban about security arrangements during the pullout.
As one analyst wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week, "Trump agreed to withdraw all coalition forces from Afghanistan in 14 months, end all military and contractor support to Afghan security forces and cease "intervening in its domestic affairs." He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions. He agreed that the Taliban could continue to commit violence against the government we were there to support, against innocent people and against those who'd assisted our efforts to keep Americans safe. All the Taliban had to do was say they would stop targeting U.S. or coalition forces, not permit Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to use Afghan territory to threaten U.S. security and subsequently hold negotiations with the Afghan government.
Not only did the agreement have no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, but despite Trump's claim that "If bad things happen, we'll go back with a force like no one's ever seen," the administration made no attempt to enforce its terms.
Read it. There are no conditions on the ground outlined.
They Agree, Even if We Don't
Biden's arguments are about what we are doing overall in Afghanistan. So are Trump's.
For good or bad, the two political ends are arguing over something for which they both agree on the fundamentals. We can, and are, having a ruckus over how well the mechanics of pulling out went, but few Republican opponents are suggesting that we re-commit the kind of numbers to Afghanistan to make a major difference. From polling and endless interviews, it is clear that Americans don't have the stomach for generations-long wars to prevent possible terrorism, insisting instead that a vibrant and strong military and an effective intelligence array can respond as needed, anywhere in the world.
We can and will argue endlessly about that too.
But we should dismiss this notion that Trump, the magician, was going to extract hundreds of thousands from Afghanistan in any manner that was without the messiness of these last two weeks. And we should dismiss the defensiveness of the Biden team in insisting that the inevitability of chaos absolved them from better preparations about the processing and withdrawal of populations of this size from halfway around the world.