Joe Biden is facing what will likely be the defining event of his presidency. The gains made in Afghanistan are evaporating in record time under his watch. But Biden doesn’t want to be a foreign policy president. He wants to be the man who ended wars, taking credit for America’s Covid recovery, funnelling trillions of dollars into infrastructure and education while the Federal Reserve’s printing presses are warmed up and there’s still appetite to spend. But like his Democrat predecessor — and the man whom he served as vice president — he has been dealt a different hand.
President Obama was loathed to see the atrocities taking place in Syria distract from his domestic agenda (which he wanted to be defined by healthcare reform). This explains why Obama failed to act when Bashar al-Assad crossed the US president’s clearly defined ‘red lines’, using chemical weapons on the Syrian people. As Obama found out, inaction has consequences. The Syrian debacle is very much part of Obama’s legacy and has come to be known as a huge stain on the president’s tenure — even by some of his more ardent supporters.
Biden knows all this. He witnessed Obama’s mistakes in real-time, up close and on the ground in the White House. He cannot feign ignorance or pretend he doesn’t know what is about to happen to America’s reputation on the world stage — or to the Afghan people left behind. The problem with Syria is that it downgraded the value of an American ‘red line’. The problem with Kabul is that it massively downgrades the value of an American alliance. When brutal regimes get a taste of victory, they are emboldened to act faster and more viciously. The Taliban has said it’s not the same as the leaders who inflicted totalitarian control in the 1990s — but don’t be surprised if Afghan doctors, teachers and soldiers become slaves, refugees and body counts overnight.
One does not need to support the war in Afghanistan, or vehemently oppose it, to recognise things have gone badly wrong. The Taliban took over Afghanistan’s presidential palace just hours after President Ghani fled to Tajikistan to ‘prevent a flood of bloodshed’. The Afghan government that the US spent 20 years building up instantly collapsed, and in its place we see the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The world Afghans had slowly and steadily built for themselves has descended into chaos: the streets full of gunfire, executions taking place in broad daylight, reports of girls as young as 12 seized as sex slaves.
Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden stood on a platform to wind down a failed war and bring American soldiers home. It was Donald Trump, let’s not forget, who cut the deal with the Taliban. But Biden made the final move. The execution of withdrawal has been disastrous, deadly. The US intelligence community’s estimates for a Taliban resurgence were catastrophically off base. The damage and death toll experienced in a matter of days has gone far beyond original estimates.
Those who say America never should have invaded Afghanistan in the first place (myself included) must know this isn’t a solution to the immediate problem in front of us: that the violent resurgence of the Taliban is creating a new breeding ground for extremists, that women and girls who relied on promises from the West are losing their rights. The neo-conservative stand-off with libertarian isolationists breaks down when you see desperate Afghans storming runways and clinging onto railings to get themselves onto what may be the last flights out of Kabul.
We are about to discover who Joe Biden, as President, really is. We know he’s willing to take risks at home: running the economy hot and frustrating the fringes of his own party to find political compromise with the right. But he has given no indication yet that he has the guts to do what’s risky and necessary abroad, and change tactics. No indication that he is any less insular than Trump when it comes to discharging America’s responsibility in the world.
If Biden gets this wrong, the world will become a more dangerous place. The events in Kabul will embolden all the wrong people. We will experience those consequences here in the West — but perhaps not as fast as the smaller, more vulnerable neighbours of America’s foes. Ukraine and Taiwan will be feeling tense indeed; Moscow and Beijing will be feeling far less inhibited. The flames in Kabul may well stoke fires around the world.
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