The departing troops left somewhere between 100 and 250 Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans entitled to protection from former US comrades and an entire nation to their fates under fundamentalist Taliban rule — along with an even more extreme faction of ISIS.
For them, the “forever war” is far from over.
But any sense that the US is free of consequences of a war in which it bled for 20 years is belied by the history of a country that exacts a fierce price from its former occupiers. And the trauma of the two weeks since the fall of Kabul have already left an indelible mark on Joe Biden’s presidency, Washington’s bitter politics and the reputation of America among its disappointed allies.
Biden can lay claim to having the guts to finally end a war that had long been lost but outlived the presidencies of three predecessors. This may resonate more widely in the future among voters than the Beltway critics of his withdrawal may appreciate. And the crush of other domestic challenges, including a worsening pandemic, could soon redirect the rare spotlight from what was until a few months ago often referred to as the “forgotten war.”
But the pandemonium of the US retreat — a humbling exercise that confounded everything Biden promised about a stable, honorable US exit — stained the aura of competence he sold to the country in the last election and raised questions about his leadership, candor and capacity going forward to quell the nation’s multiple crises. While his defenders claim he was being unfairly blamed for two decades of strategic failures in Afghanistan, the President surely authored his own postscript of incompetence and didn’t predict the shockingly rapid collapse of the Afghan state and army.
The President will try to spin his own favorable retelling of the end of the war in an address to the nation Tuesday afternoon. But it was perhaps telling that he left it to Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who heads US Central Command, to announce the end of the war, and for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to address how the US would still seek to rescue the remaining Americans left behind. Biden, seeking to repair a self-styled reputation for a steady pair of hands, instead sat in front of a bank of TV monitors earlier in the day as he corralled local officials who were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
The coming Washington showdown over the war
Biden’s Afghan miscalculations, which left US troops relying on their 20-year enemies in the Taliban to secure the evacuation and effectively led to the deaths of 13 US troops in a suicide bombing last week, allowed Republicans to build a narrative of haplessness and neglect they will drive into the midterm elections next year.
The GOP charge that Biden left Americans behind could be an incendiary one, given that their chances to leave freely and safely seem remote under the Taliban. And the risks inherent in Biden’s promised “over the horizon” anti-terror strategy were highlighted by the deaths of a young Afghan family this weekend in a US strike on what the American military insisted was a vehicle bomb destined for Kabul airport.
Yet the last few weeks also showcased the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, which ignored its complicity in ex-President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, a folding that set the stage for the current debacle. The usual torrent of misinformation pumped out by conservative media — as US troops were stationed on a dangerous foreign battlefield — showed that the threat to truth posed by the previous presidency is far from passed, and is the latest sign that Biden’s pleas for national unity will go unfulfilled.
GOP lawmakers who excused and enabled the former President’s historic assault on democracy demanded Biden’s impeachment or resignation. And Trump’s own staggering incoherence over the war he boasted about forcing Biden to end shone through in a statement Monday in which he appeared to suggest the US should reinvade to recapture hardware already destroyed by the military.
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