Analysis

How Biden Was Right About Afghanistan—and Disastrously Wrong

The president is taking flak from all sides, but the timing of the Taliban takeover could minimize the political damage.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Aug. 16. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The emerging conventional wisdom in Washington is that U.S. President Joe Biden was disastrously wrong in his assessment of Afghanistan—especially since he declared a little more than a month ago that the Afghan national forces would fight, and possibly dominate, the Taliban. Further painting himself into a rhetorical corner, Biden added, “Never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history.” 

Now that the Taliban seem to have more control of the country than they did even in the late 1990s, that latter Biden appraisal is looking very wrong as well. Afghanistan will now be united all right but in blood. Very likely a reign of terror by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban will ensue as they subjugate Afghanistan’s large and hostile non-Pashtun ethnic population, such as the Tajiks and Hazaras (the second and third largest ethnic groups, respectively).

Yet in strategic terms Biden may have been essentially right in saying there was no reason for the United States to stay any longer; the Afghan state and its security forces were plainly an empty husk, utterly unable to operate on their own, and any further U.S. involvement would not have altered the military odds, only staving off the inevitable. That has been Biden’s line all along. As the president said at the White House on Monday: “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for their future.”

The emerging conventional wisdom in Washington is that U.S. President Joe Biden was disastrously wrong in his assessment of Afghanistan—especially since he declared a little more than a month ago that the Afghan national forces would fight, and possibly dominate, the Taliban. Further painting himself into a rhetorical corner, Biden added, “Never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history.” 

Now that the Taliban seem to have more control of the country than they did even in the late 1990s, that latter Biden appraisal is looking very wrong as well. Afghanistan will now be united all right but in blood. Very likely a reign of terror by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban will ensue as they subjugate Afghanistan’s large and hostile non-Pashtun ethnic population, such as the Tajiks and Hazaras (the second and third largest ethnic groups, respectively).

Yet in strategic terms Biden may have been essentially right in saying there was no reason for the United States to stay any longer; the Afghan state and its security forces were plainly an empty husk, utterly unable to operate on their own, and any further U.S. involvement would not have altered the military odds, only staving off the inevitable. That has been Biden’s line all along. As the president said at the White House on Monday: “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for their future.”

Or as U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC News on Monday: “Despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training, and the best capacity to the Afghan national security forces, we could not give them the will.” 

Conventional wisdom may be overreacting as well when it comes to the political fallout for Biden. For an administration that had been coasting along on economic success and claiming some progress on climate and other foreign-policy issues, the Afghan debacle clearly marks the first major setback for Biden. Hence, many pundits are predicting that “Biden’s Vietnam” bodes political peril for him. But the very swiftness of the Taliban takeover could also work, ironically, to his political advantage: By the time the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election roll around, Afghanistan may no longer be making headlines, especially if the United States and its allies and the United Nations manage to restrain some Taliban behavior.

Charlie Black, a longtime Republican political strategist, said in an interview that while the Afghan debacle is a “national embarrassment and failure of leadership that dents his image forever … it probably won’t be a top-line issue in 2022 or 2024.” Black believes that the economy and the threat of inflation will loom larger.

Elaine Kamarck, a leading Democratic political strategist, tends to agree. “It’s a long time to the midterms,” she wrote in an email. “I doubt it will have much of an effect. After all [former U.S. President Donald] Trump kept wanting to do this as well so it will be difficult to make it into a partisan issue.”

The emerging conventional wisdom also holds that the swift Taliban victory is a huge blow to U.S. prestige abroad. And clearly U.S. allies are worried about Washington’s broad retreat from trouble spots—especially in the Middle East.

But another way to read the situation is that Kabul’s stunningly swift collapse demonstrates just how crucial U.S. military support is. Trump had reduced the U.S. troop contingent to 2,500—though the actual number was about 3,500—after he began peace talks with the Taliban in 2020. Yet that small contingent alone, along with U.S. air support, was enough to hold off the Taliban from doing more than taking control of mostly rural areas. It was only after Biden announced the coming withdrawal by Aug. 31 that the Afghan national forces and police began to crumble. That demonstrates that even a small U.S. presence in a country can make a difference.

Finally, many pundits are saying that the whole idea of U.S.- and U.N.-led nation-building, which had been on a respirator in recent years, has now been delivered the coup de grâce. But has it? Afghanistan was always a uniquely difficult problem, whose very geography seems to dictate its destiny as a nearly unconquerable land. As the scholar Larry Goodson wrote in his book Afghanistan’s Endless War in 2001, “The Hindu Kush and its various spurs not only limited Afghanistan’s enemies from their offensive tactics but also provided almost unassailable bases from which rival guerrillas could operate.” Whether it was the British in the 19th century or the Russians in the 20th, no great power has been able to overcome Afghanistan’s soaring mountains and ridges and tribal and ethnic disunity. 

This was long the mantra of top U.S. counterinsurgency experts under former President Barack Obama: True nation-building was never going to work there, so they had to settle for “Afghan good enough,” which meant mainly some modicum of stability and taking out the terrorists. The case can be made that the Afghanistan tragedy should be seen as the exception, not the rule.

Nonetheless it will take Biden a long time to recover from his huge tactical errors in Afghanistan, some experts say. Even if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, his insistence on a complete withdrawal with few contingency plans put the United States in the worst possible light. 

“It was a mistake to announce a major foreign-policy decision without extensive consultation with our NATO allies and the Afghan government,” said Bruce Riedel, an advisor to four U.S. presidents on the Middle East and South Central Asia. “It was also a mistake to begin a precipitous and hasty withdrawal at the beginning of the Afghan fighting season instead of at the end, when winter alone would have helped delay the Taliban.”

Biden and his team no doubt realize this now—and perhaps they’ll learn from it. “I’m not convinced that the Taliban takeover was inevitable,” said Jonah Blank, who served as Biden’s South Asia and Southeast Asia policy advisor in the Senate for nearly a decade. “But the way in which we left—for example, vacating Bagram Airbase before evacuation of SIVs [those Afghans granted special immigrant visas] was complete, and with a speed that took the Afghan military itself by surprise—may well have tipped the balance.”  Instead of what might have been an alliance between the Afghan national forces and anti-Taliban warlords, the Taliban advance snowballed, and the warlords who might have resisted in the past folded.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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