This evening, President Joe Biden finally addressed the American people from the White House on Monday after Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban.
The speech should’ve been given much sooner. We did not hear publicly from the President for three days as the Taliban seized Kabul, the US Embassy was evacuated, and Afghani President Ghani fled the country. Biden finally left Camp David for the White House on Monday morning amid mounting pressure. He did not take questions from the press and will return to Camp David on Monday evening. Trotting out the President for a ten-minute scripted speech and then sending him back on vacation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the commander-in-chief.
That being said, Biden’s speech was commendably resolute, given the intense pressure he is under. He was bold enough to stand by the decision to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan, despite the protestations of the media and so much of the the political class. He asserted that too many Americans have lost their lives and we have spent too much money in a fruitless nation-building exercise. He acknowledged that Afghanis must control the destiny of their own country. There is never a perfect time to leave, Biden explained, but it was time to go.
It is not so much the decision to leave that needs defending, though. It is the matter of why the withdrawal went so poorly. Biden attempted to blame this, naturally, on former President Donald Trump, whose administration was leading negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan with a May 1, 2021 deadline. Biden claimed in his speech that he inherited a choice of following through on Trump’s deal or getting into an intense conflict with the Taliban. This is obviously a false binary, as Biden faced neither of those things. Instead, he ignored the conditions-based framework of Trump’s deal and extended the deadline to September 11, 2021. Critics of Trump’s approach may argue that a ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal really meant ‘never’. But Trump had reduced the number of troops from around 15,000 to 2,500 despite constant pushback from his own administration officials and military generals. Plus, the 2,500 troops remaining at the end of Trump’s term is still far fewer than the 6,000 Biden just deployed to make up for his botched withdrawal. Critics of Trump are busy insisting that his dramatic drawdown was more to blame for the collapse of the Afghan government than anything Biden did. But the fact remains that Afghanistan didn’t collapse after Trump reduced troop numbers. It fell catastrophically straight after Joe Biden’s withdrawal.
If Biden’s speech were given two months ago to explain when and why the United States was leaving Afghanistan, it would have been impressive and convincing. But what the American people wanted to hear today was how things went so badly. Biden gave them none of that. He acknowledged that the speed of the collapse had surprised his administration. He could have said little else, given the embarrassing blitheness with which he had dismissed concerns about a rapid Taliban take over just a few days earlier. But it was disingenuous of him to play the blame game with Trump while declaring, ‘the buck stops with me’. I wonder if that will bother him too much as he completes his vacation in Camp David.
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