Joe Biden Thinks America Old Enough To Hear (Mostly) Truth About Afghanistan
Following Sunday's Taliban takeover of Kabul, President Joe Biden on Monday defended his decision to end US military involvement in Afghanistan, saying it remained the right decision. He acknowledged that he and his administration hadn't anticipated how quickly the Taliban would take over the entire country, and said that was largely due to the complete collapse of the Afghan government and military.
BIDEN: I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. [...]
So what's happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.
If anything, he added, the rapid fall of the Afghan military and government "reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision," because it demonstrated that the US and NATO military presence had been the only thing propping up both, and if after 20 years and a trillion dollars the government and its military couldn't stand on their own, then "there is no chance that one year — one more year, five more years, or 20 more years of US military boots on the ground would've made any difference."
In what's sure to be included in any future video retrospective of his administration, Biden said it was time to finally end America's longest war. He continued:
BIDEN: The events we're seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan — as known in history as the "graveyard of empires."
What is happening now could just as easily have happened five years ago or 15 years in the future.
That certainly sounds like an unvarnished, if deeply uncomfortable truth.
But if you felt an "and yet" coming, you have pretty good instincts, dear reader: Biden's right that there was never going to be a "good" time for the US to leave Afghanistan. (While he didn't say it, there probably wasn't a good time to have invaded in the first place). And it was also inevitable that after 20 years, any US withdrawal would be, as Biden put it, "messy," which may be in the running for understatement of the year.
So here's the "and yet": Even though getting out is the right thing, America shouldn't be proud of the way it left tens of thousands of Afghans behind, likely to be persecuted or simply murdered by the Taliban for their cooperation with US forces, or for the crime of trying to build a more just Afghanistan. Women's rights activists are in particular danger, as are women who ran schools and clinics, or women who got divorced.
The Taliban is saying it won't carry out reprisals against those who worked with the US, and that government workers have nothing to fear, but there's little reason to trust such reassurances from a group that made stonings of rape victims official government policy. The patriarchal culture in Afghanistan didn't vanish during the American occupation — horrific abuse of women remained common, especially in rural areas. The Taliban is likely to wipe away such progress as was made, and the very least the US and NATO can do is to rescue as many threatened Afghans as possible.
In his speech yesterday, Biden pledged that the US remains committed to "assisting in the departure of US and Allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of Afghanistan." He said some 6,000 US troops will remain at the Kabul airport to help evacuate US civilians and "civilian personnel of our Allies who are still serving in Afghanistan."
He also said the US would continue to evacuate Afghans who worked with US forces, as well as their families, under the "Special Immigration Visa" (SIV) program. Some 2,000 Afghans have been moved to the US under that program, which has been justly criticized for not processing applicants quickly enough. Some 18,000 applications still await processing from Afghans who helped the US, with tens of thousands of family members also waiting to get out. They're not likely to escape. And the SIV program applies only to those who helped the US military; there are no slots for women's rights advocates or human rights workers. Maybe other countries still using the airport can get some of them out.
Ever since Biden announced the withdrawal, advocates for those US allies, like Afghanistan war vet Matt Zeller, founder of the nonprofit group No One Left Behind, have been calling on the Biden administration to please just streamline the process and get the interpreters and their families out, to Guam or to third countries while their applications are processed.
On MSNBC yesterday, Zeller excoriated Biden's speech, calling Biden's assertion that the US "planned for every contingency" an outright lie, because clearly, the vast majority of translators and their families have not been rescued, and noting that much of the aid that was supposed to go to Afghanistan's military never reached the soldiers. (The BBC also points out that the Afghan military had relied on logistical support from some 18,000 military contractors who kept supply lines going, but have been pulled out in recent weeks).
Zeller also appeared on "The Rachel Maddow Show" last night to plead again for assistance for our Afghan allies and their families, recalling a heartbreaking conversation with a translator trapped in Mazar-i-Sharif who now has little chance of making it out alive. Zeller, blinking back tears, said the translator still loved the Americans he'd worked with, that he didn't regret it, and that "he thanked us for a good life."
Zeller said the US can still hold the Kabul airport as a "beachhead" to extract Afghans, even from areas now held by the Taliban, who he believes would not risk fighting the US over the translators. That may not be all that realistic, particularly given US fears of a "Black Hawk Down" debacle. But there's so much more that should have been done to protect and rescue Afghans before the country was retaken by the Taliban.
For some of that, we can definitely thank Donald Trump and the glacially slow process he added to the already slow vetting of refugees, out of fear that a potential terrorist might sneak through. Add to that Trump's agreement with the Taliban to remove US forces by May of this year, with a withdrawal of all but about 2,000 troops before Biden took office, leaving him with the choice of leaving sooner or expanding the US presence in Afghanistan.
That said, the failure to get more people out in advance of the US withdrawal is horrific. We can welcome Biden's decision to end our forever war in Afghanistan and still be disgusted that, as in Vietnam, America left so many people behind when we could have done more. Oskar Schindler (in the movie at least) bemoaned that he didn't save even one more life than he did. We can still try to at least get as many Afghans out of Kabul as possible, regardless of the state of their paperwork.
And perhaps in the future, potential allies will remember we're a snake when they let us in.
[White House / BBC / DW / Guardian / MSNBC]
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