National Post (Latest Edition)

Dissecting Biden’s Afghan debacle

- Derek H. Burney National Post Derek H. Burney was Chief of Staff to the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney from 1987-1989 and Ambassador to the United States of America from 1989-1993

One month ago I wrote that, “if the Afghan fiasco becomes a debacle, Biden will wear it.” That is exactly what is happening, and the president bears full responsibi­lity, something he is unwilling to accept. His initial attempts to defend the indefensib­le have been as lame and contradict­ory as those made by his senior officials, more exasperate­d than empathetic, ascribing blame to their putative ally but none to themselves.

A careful dissection of events reveals wholesale incompeten­ce — flawed military and intelligen­ce judgments and dubious diplomatic skills all begging the question, “How could so many supposedly knowledgea­ble officials get so many things wrong?” Bloated bureaucrac­ies at the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Agency share responsibi­lity for the catastroph­ic results, humanitari­an and political, but where is the accountabi­lity?

Over the Americans’ 20-year deployment in Afghanista­n, 18 different generals were in charge. One was fired by president Barack Obama for insubordin­ation. None of the others expressed publicly any concern about the Afghan security forces they were training. None resigned to protest the endemic corruption witnessed first-hand nor, most recently, when the president overruled their recommenda­tion to retain a modest force in Afghanista­n. The U.S. military persistent­ly ignored the most fundamenta­l flaw in its strategy — unrelentin­g support for the Taliban from Pakistan. Chris Alexander, a former Canadian ambassador to Afghanista­n, stated, “Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has not been a sideshow. It is the main act. By ignoring this reality U.S. leaders perversely backed both sides.”

Like the U.S. president, the military knew that the American people wanted out of the “endless war,” but nobody wanted a bass-ackward exit. Instead of evacuating civilians, then military equipment and finally U.S. troops, they did the reverse, leaving civilians stranded and massive weaponry in Taliban hands.

On the intelligen­ce side, there is no evidence of timely judgments about the speed with which the Taliban could seize control or the extent to which the Afghan forces would melt away, mostly without a fight. After the fact, some in the intelligen­ce community joined a chorus of finger-pointing insiders claiming to have warned of “dire consequenc­es” from a hasty withdrawal.

The most colossal blunder was on the diplomatic front: efforts to negotiate unilateral­ly with the Taliban, initiated by Donald Trump and maintained by Joe Biden. The Taliban knew the Americans wanted out of Afghanista­n. That gave them all the leverage. They gave away nothing in the negotiatio­ns but gained the release of 5,000 prisoners. Promises made were never fulfilled.

Worst of all, the Afghan government was humiliatin­gly sidelined from those negotiatio­ns. Having been abandoned cavalierly by their ally, is it any wonder that both the Afghan government and its security forces lost the will to fight?

As Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanista­n, observed, “We have spent the last almost two years delegitimi­zing the Afghan government and its security forces. It has destroyed the morale of the government and certainly of its security forces.”

Crocker added that, “without crucial U.S. air support, the predictabl­e collapse of Afghan forces suggests a total lack of co-ordinated, post-withdrawal planning on our part. … It is a self-inflicted wound.”

Crocker believes that the rout by the Taliban was “entirely avoidable.” For one thing, Biden could and should have modified Trump’s “peace” settlement. Crocker acknowledg­ed pointedly that he was “left with some grave questions about Biden’s ability to lead our nation as commander in chief. To have read this so wrong — or even worse, to have understood what was likely to happen and not care.”

The former ambassador’s scorn was endorsed by many in the American media, including some in the legacy media who have been Biden’s most persistent supporters. CNN commentato­rs declared it a “political disaster” and a “wilful abandonmen­t.” A Washington Post editorial was headlined “The debacle in Afghanista­n is the worst kind: Avoidable.”

The Biden administra­tion is reeling from the aftershock­s of what Walter Russell Mead described as “the worst handled foreign policy crisis since the Bay of Pigs and the most devastatin­g blow to American prestige since the fall of Saigon.” Others point out that it also reflected the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

The core objective of the U.S. invasion in 2001 — to eradicate a haven for terrorist attacks — has backfired. The threat is now greater than ever, and the stain of incompeten­ce will impact America’s global reputation and the value of its commitment­s.

The Taliban care less about diplomatic relations than about the fact they defeated the world’s strongest military, a narrative that will bolster their recruitmen­t and funding of militant Islamists in Afghanista­n and beyond.

Ultimately, Biden’s choice was between doing what was right and what was popular. In choosing the latter the president elicited negative response from friends and foes alike. NATO leaders are frustrated that Biden negotiated unilateral­ly and ignored their advice to not leave abruptly. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s potential successor, Armin Laschet, called the withdrawal “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.” As chaos in Kabul deepened, former British PM Tony Blair castigated Biden’s retreat as “imbecilic.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial opined that “By failing to grasp the damage Biden’s disgracefu­l exit has inflicted on America’s alliances and reputation, he will never be trusted again.”

Taiwan, Ukraine and Israel must now sense greater vulnerabil­ity. Many in India will wonder about Washington’s reliabilit­y just at the time the White House is seeking stronger support from India to check the security threat from China in the Indo-pacific region.

The Afghan people will never forget being abandoned.

The Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians will happily exploit American weakness.

Americans take pride in being exceptiona­l, but Biden has been exceptiona­lly inept handling the withdrawal from Afghanista­n. Mark Steyn invoked Bernard Lewis’s lament years ago that “America risks being seen as harmless as an enemy, and treacherou­s as a friend,” adding poignantly that “the bungling superpower can only inflict defeat on itself.”

Above all, Biden should have learned that it is easier to declare intentions than to execute them. The incredibly messy withdrawal is sapping his approval ratings and, if the aftermath is ugly, could doom his presidency.


 ?? MUHAMMAD SAJJAD / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Taliban fighters and a Pakistani paramilita­ry soldier stand guard on their respective sides
at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanista­n earlier this week.
MUHAMMAD SAJJAD / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Taliban fighters and a Pakistani paramilita­ry soldier stand guard on their respective sides at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanista­n earlier this week.

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