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File photo / President Joe Biden, left and President George W. Bush are shown in this composite photo.

Point: Afghanistan fiasco belongs to Biden

By Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

While the Taliban laid siege to Afghanistan, the commander in chief was hiding from the American people.

Instead of President Joe Biden behind the Resolute Desk addressing the crisis, Americans watched the news replaying weeks-old videos of Biden defiantly stating what would prove to be inversely prophetic: "The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance where you see people lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan."

Thirty-eight days later, images of U.S. forces airlifting personnel from the roof of the American embassy splashed across TVs in American living rooms.

Other images, too. After Biden had to surge more forces back into Afghanistan, scenes of U.S. military forces evacuating frantic hordes of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from the mayhem on the tarmac at Kabul's airport unfolded in real time.

Americans watched in horror as desperate Afghans clung to the outside of U.S. transport planes, then plunged thousands of feet to their deaths, preferring that fate to the mercy of the Taliban.

The events are hard to fathom. Is it possible an American president, with decades of foreign policy experience, failed to consider second- and third-order effects? That he failed to consider the seasonal warfighting patterns unique to Afghanistan? Failed to make realistic and necessary operational preparations, or accurately assess what would happen to Afghan National Security Forces once they didn't have U.S. aerial support and the direction from U.S. special forces? Is it possible our president failed to have a plan to evacuate U.S. civilians and our most at-risk partners and then failed to develop a clear message to the American people?

It is not only possible, it is our very real, national nightmare.

On Aug. 16, Biden finally addressed the nation. He was defensive of his decision to withdraw, did not own up to the disastrous way his decision was planned and carried out, and blamed Donald Trump for his bad deal with the Taliban (though the deal was based on conditions that the Taliban did not meet) and on the ANSF saying, "Americans cannot and should not be fighting in a war that Afghans (in the) military aren't willing to fight themselves. This is not in the American national security interest."

Don't be fooled.

It is true that Trump wanted out. But he left a residual force in place. It is also untrue that the Afghan security forces did not fight the Taliban. Since 2014, and then especially since Trump's dramatic drawdown to a mere few thousand troops, the ANSF were conducting dangerous ground operations and more than 50,000 lost their lives in that time. Many more were injured. The U.S. forces were providing support and guidance, and confidence — something the ANSF simply could not do without.

As for whether it is in our national security interest to maintain a small presence there and keep control of the invaluable Bagram Air Base, the president is wrong.

What was not in our national security interest was the nation-building, counterinsurgency project that required a large and endangered troop presence. The American people were behind the war in response to Sept. 11 — to kill al-Qaeda and those who harbored them. Support for the effort dwindled as the scope of the mission grew, cost more American lives for an unachievable project.

It didn't have to be this way. The U.S. government could have decided to do only what was militarily achievable — destroy the enemy wherever he hid — including in Pakistan — and we could have de-escalated our involvement years ago. After thousands of precious warriors' lives were lost, we should have at least maintained a very small presence there, like the U.S. military presence at the end of Trump's term, to keep order, conduct airstrikes, and to back the ANSF.

If only we had a competent, honest, able, governing class to recognize this and carry this through.

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute specializing in U.S. national defense policy. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.

Tribune Content Agency

 

Counterpoint: Don't blame Biden for 'failure' in Afghanistan — blame Bush

By Matthew Schmidt

If you want to ascribe blame for the "failure" in Afghanistan, you'll find it in the decision to invade Iraq. President Joe Biden did not fail there, he did his best to work through an impossible situation made worse by former President George W. Bush's terrible choice to shift the war to a country that played no part in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As has been shown over and over, most recently in Robert Draper's "To Start a War," it was Bush himself who decided Saddam Hussein was a "bad guy" who needed to go. One by one, senior officials fell in line with the president's gut instinct and set about obstructing and poisoning the intelligence and planning processes designed to help the White House make strategic decisions based on fact.

Many of those officials had serious doubts about the wisdom of Bush's call. Most notably was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who cinched the decision with his deft, but nearly totally incorrect, presentation in defense of war to the U.N. Security Council. Once the famous general-turned-diplomat said it was OK, there was no turning back. Our allies piled on the bandwagon, and we were off to topple Baghdad and make way for a democratic Iraq.

In 2003, when Bush declared major combat operations over in Afghanistan, there were just 8,000 U.S. service personnel in-country for the entire theater of operations. Biden just sent 5,000 troops to cover just the embassy withdrawal. Bush's pivot to Iraq was an abandonment of Afghanistan. It was a move from which our efforts there never recovered.

The images of bodies falling off planes as they leave the country are emblematic of the horrors that await local citizens when the Taliban consolidate their rule. Enough time has passed for girls to have been born after the fall of the Taliban to U.S. troops who never knew the fear of forced hoodings with a burka or the devastating exclusion from school. The Taliban-suffused world looming over Afghanistan will be a special kind of hell for these 18-year-olds.

The story bouncing around of the State Department's failure to anticipate the quickness of the Taliban's takeover misses the reality. A better way to understand what happened is that the processes of America's intelligence agencies were working right, compared to the way they were when the Bush administration yoked them to its geopolitical fantasies. Real disagreement about events was aired. As it should be. And even as Biden acknowledges that the speed of the Taliban's operations caught people flatfooted, the truth is that that's more a courtesy apology to his critics than anything else. The bottom line is that the intel community was more right than it was wrong.

The Department of Defense had been urging the State Department to beware that Kabul might fall fast, but just how fast is a fool's game to play. Some said days, some said weeks. Everyone understood that once word got out of the evacuation something like this might happen. It was planned for. What you see on TV isn't a chaotic withdrawal, but a well-executed withdrawal in the midst of chaos that was war-gamed out months ago. American professionalism is bringing enough order to the chaos to complete the mission, but it can't eliminate it all.

The United States faced a situation with no good bets to be placed. As Biden repeated, "there was never a good time" for a withdrawal to take place. Once any sort of evacuation started, we risked precipitating a rapid collapse if it was seen that Washington had lost faith in the ability of the Afghan government. So Foggy Bottom took a risk and held off on closing shop until the last minute. It was a brave call. But the diplomats, like the servicemen and women, were willing to put their lives in danger for the sake of a mission they believed in. The images we're watching reflect the resolve and heroism of individual Americans' commitment to their mission, not a mistake by Joe Biden.

The choice was an impossible one. All that could be done was to stand with the people of Afghanistan as long as possible.

That was a choice Bush didn't make.

Matthew Schmidt is an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

Tribune Content Agency

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