We have to hope Biden got It right
Arguably the biggest winner in America's two-decade involvement in Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden. The attack he carried out was the beginning of a devastating turn in American history. Out of the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan came the invasion of Iraq, and these became America’s so-called forever wars.
Bin Laden, orchestrating a few dozen militants with a modest investment, hit a geopolitical jackpot. September 11 was our generation's Pearl Harbor. No great power could respond to such an attack on the homeland with anything but war. The administration of former President George W. Bush did its duty, promptly engaging in a necessary war, and America's fateful tragedy in Afghanistan had begun.
Bin Laden couldn't have known the United States would invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban regime, nor could he know that Bush in a short time would pivot from revenge to an all-but-hopeless task of nation-building in a barren, mountainous, landlocked country of tribes and clans. But he did want to lure Washington into a trap, and he succeeded.
After 9/11, bin Laden was a dead man walking for ten years. But that was the price of jihad. Dying for Islam was a martyrdom that Islamists hoped for. Even so, his eluding capture for a decade was yet another exploit. Saying that bin Laden was brought to justice thanks to the invasion has always been something of a misstatement. The mission to get bin Laden was a failure for a decade.
Bush's nation-building evangelism led the U.S. from Kabul to Baghdad, where his administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq created a geopolitical catastrophe. Among other reasons, the invasion rested on a messianic idea of doing the right thing, doing God’s work. Hundreds of thousands died.
In 2008 Bush left his successor Barack Obama to figure it out. Obama, like Bush a foreign-policy neophyte, agonized during his two terms in office. His bad results were multiplied by the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Obama failed, trying to send in more troops even as he set a date for them to leave.
Obama then left Afghanistan to his successor, Donald Trump, yet a third president with no experience in matters of war and peace. The result was Trump's Feb. 20, 2020 agreement with the Taliban to remove the American presence in Afghanistan at a fixed time, in May 2021. The move was termed by many a ‘surrender.’
Trump's electoral defeat left Joe Biden to deal with Afghanistan. Can one say that Biden's decision to finally leave is not a kind of surrender as well? In any case, there are better and worse surrenders. It is possible to lose a war well or badly, as Machiavelli might say.
Today, it's not entirely implausible to think that Biden is losing a war, accepting defeat, in the best possible way. And he's doing it consciously, accepting the inner moral turmoil that goes with the job of president. Afghanistan and the mass of the Afghan people are being left in the lurch.
In matters of war and peace, getting the measure of momentous events is difficult, especially so soon after the curtain has come down.
What will the outcome of U.S. withdrawal be? We cannot know and will not know for months or even years. Those insisting that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a geopolitical mistake of the highest order need to be treated with skepticism, especially in a world where every government’s foreign policy depends on the foreign policies of every other government.
Already there are commentators abroad—including in Moscow and Beijing— suggesting that Biden’s decision makes much sense from the point of view of American national interests. And they worry about possible consequences for their own countries.
Biden's speech on the matter was too long, the first half full of statistics everyone knew. But the second half, a defiant rebuttal of critics, had the virtue of simplicity and conviction. “I made the decision; I take responsibility for it.”
What was missing was the gravitas of the statesman, the authoritative long-term view that commands assent, a leader’s oratory rising to a historical moment. Biden is no great orator. So be it. Over the past thirty years America has not produced many statesmen, Democrat or Republican. Let’s just hope Biden will be proven right.