For all the talk of Saigon, I think the Bay of Pigs serves as a better political analogy for what’s happening in Afghanistan. Like John F. Kennedy, Joe Biden inherited a half-cocked plan whose aim he committed to during the presidential campaign, then shouldered the blame when it went sideways.
The parallels aren’t perfect, of course. The politics and psychology of the Cold War were strange (and rather terrifying) beasts. Donald Trump’s February 2020 capitulation to the Taliban, on the other hand, was quite plainly borne of his desire to notch a historic first-term achievement. Biden followed through on account of his insistent, long-held conviction that the U.S. had no business nation-building in Afghanistan.
But the deal Trump struck is worth assessing: Without including the Afghan government, Trump agreed to arrange the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and withdraw American troops by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the Taliban pinky-swore to negotiate with the Afghan government — not broker a power-sharing arrangement — not harbor terrorists, and not launch “high-profile” attacks or kill Americans.
The emboldened Taliban immediately escalated its war on Afghan forces, the Pentagon’s inspector general reported in May 2020. Afghan forces, reading the writing on the wall, began cutting deals with extremist groups.
Even so, Trump reduced troop strength from 13,000 to 8,600.
Trump also said the agreement was contingent on “the Taliban’s action against al-Qaeda and other terrorists who threaten us.” This, too, was false. In August 2020, the Pentagon reported that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had partnered in attacks on Afghan security forces. In December, the Defense Department said members of al-Qaeda were “integrated into the Taliban’s leadership and command structure.”
Trump continued removing troops. The day he left office, the U.S. had 2,500 service members in Afghanistan.
So Biden faced a choice: Make good on Trump’s deal or recommit to a quagmire. As much as neocon forever warriors and Trump administration revisionists want to obscure their roles in this mess, a contingent of soldiers a quarter the size of the Los Angeles Police Department simply couldn’t ensure stability in a fractured country with the population of California.
Perhaps Biden could have imposed new conditions on withdrawing the last American troops, as the Afghanistan Study Group recommended in February. Or he could have left in place the air support Afghan forces relied on in battles with the Taliban. But that was easier said than done. Reneging would almost certainly have restarted the conflict in earnest, which would have required more troops — and the Taliban would no longer have left Americans alone.
For Biden, it wasn’t a hard call. Until about three weeks ago, he had little opposition. Few noticed what was happening on the other side of the world. When the Taliban overran Kabul, however — after President Ashraf Ghani fled the city, ending any chance for a negotiated transition of power and leading to the chaos that ensued — Biden’s critics saw an opportunity to land a punch.
Except it wasn’t just landing a punch. It was calculated vengeance. The more vicious the attacks against Biden, the less uniquely outrageous Trump’s presidency — the endless scandals, the two impeachments, the attempt to overturn an election — would look by comparison.
If you drag everyone into the gutter, everyone’s on the same level.
Cue the over-the-top rhetoric: From Mar-a-Lago, Trump — Trump! — declared that Biden should “resign in disgrace for what he has allowed to happen to Afghanistan.” Other epigones followed. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads Senate Republicans’ re-election efforts, said Biden should be removed via the 25th Amendment. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who negotiated the Taliban agreement, said Biden “basically abandoned the global stage in favor of climate change.” And so on.
The chest-thumping ramped up after ISIS suicide bombers killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and at least 170 Afghans outside of the Kabul airport last Thursday, marking the first American casualties in a weeklong evacuation of more than 100,000 people.
Before the bodies were cold, insurrectionist Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley — who in May praised Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan — called for Biden’s resignation. Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, the former White House Dr. Feelgood, demanded Biden’s impeachment. In a letter, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina asked “Kamela” Harris to invoke the 25th Amendment. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — who opposed a Democratic amendment last year to put conditions on Trump’s withdrawal — urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to recall the House so it can “prohibit the withdrawal of our troops until every American is safely out.”
I’m not defending the withdrawal. As I wrote last week, it was a failure of intelligence and planning, compounded by Biden’s overly optimistic public assurances. But I’m incensed by hypocrisy dressed up as indignation and cynicism pretending at compassion. And I’m increasingly distressed by corners of the media that are so desperate to maintain their both-sides cred that they’ll provide undeserved platforms to bad-faith actors.
Some perspective is needed.
One hundred and fourteen U.S.-allied fighters died in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Republicans didn’t seek Kennedy’s resignation. Nor did they demand the resignation of President Bill Clinton after the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu that left 18 Americans dead.
For that matter, Democrats didn’t demand Ronald Reagan’s resignation after a terrorist attack on a Marine base at the Beirut airport in 1983 killed 192, or George W. Bush’s resignation after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, or Donald Trump’s resignation after he sacrificed the U.S.’s Kurdish allies to Syria, at least not for that reason.
Sometimes, presidents bungle foreign policy out of hubris or ineptitude. Sometimes, decades of mistakes and misadventure come home to roost. Sometimes — at the risk of being glib — shit happens. Sometimes, it’s all of the above.
Maybe Afghanistan represents a case study in Murphy’s Law. Or maybe there’s no way to lose a two-decade-old war gracefully.
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