On Tuesday, an American president said the words: “The war in Afghanistan is now over.” One president started it, three presidents shared it and sustained it, and now a fourth president has dropped the curtain at enormous political cost.
Twenty years of sacrifice beyond comprehension, tens of thousands of civilian and military lives lost, including the scores laid low by the Kabul airport bombing. “$300 million a day for two decades,” President Biden explained on Tuesday, a fortune squandered that could have funded health care, child care, housing, education, clean energy exploration. A fortune squandered that could have provided reasons for our youngest generations to look forward to the future instead of down in despair.
After days of merciless pummeling from wildly hypocritical Republicans, a number of purple-district Democrats and a “news” media that was instrumental in foisting this fiasco on us in the first place, Biden rose forcefully to his own defense. “By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001,” he explained, “controlling or contesting nearly half of the country. The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1 deadline that they had signed on to leave by, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces. But if we stayed, all bets were off.”
“So we were left with a simple decision,” Biden continued. “Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops. Going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice. Between leaving or escalating. I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not extending a forever exit.”
Addressing the chaotic final days of the war, the president stated flatly, “I take responsibility for the decision.” Following this declaration was Biden’s apologia — not apology — for the mayhem of the withdrawal. He painted a picture of a security situation that would have fallen into chaos no matter what plans were executed. While there is a good degree of truth to this, the fact remains that the Biden administration pulled the string on withdrawal while this country’s immigration/refugee assistance programs were in a deplorable state of disrepair. Thanks in large part to the vandalism of prior administration officials including national security adviser and vivid fascist Stephen Miller, our government was ill-prepared for an influx of help/rescue requests from fleeing Afghan civilians. Our allies were similarly unprepared.
Not every voice has been raised against Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. “Unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, all of whom also came to see the futility of the Afghan operation, Biden alone had the political courage to fully end America’s involvement,” writes David Rothkopf for The Atlantic. “Although Donald Trump made a plan to end the war, he set a departure date that fell after the end of his first term and created conditions that made the situation Biden inherited more precarious. And despite significant pressure and obstacles, Biden has overseen a military and government that have managed, since the announcement of America’s withdrawal, one of the most extraordinary logistical feats in their recent history.”
The American public appears to agree. Recent surveys show that a solid majority supports the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a supermajority believes this country failed to achieve its goals in that country. Politically, Biden is laying a huge and thoroughly tactical wager on those numbers. While the administration expects another round of brutal news cycles as the Afghanistan situation is folded into the 20th anniversary of September 11, “they assume that attention will shift back again to the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s proposals for large public works projects and social welfare programs, and a dozen other issues that will absorb the public more than far-off Afghanistan,” according to The New York Times.
It would not have been a speech by an American president without providing a side-serving of menace. “And to ISIS-K,” he growled in an eerie echo of George W. Bush. “We are not done with you yet.” What does that mean? Biden spoke of “the war on terror” and of “over-the-horizon capabilities,” hedged his bets on “boots on the ground,” and made it abundantly clear that the war paradigm which has burdened these last two decades will not be altered by his administration any time soon.
Russia and China were not spared the treatment, as Biden rattled the chains for the possible onset of the next Cold War. “The world is changing,” he said. “We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia.” Nothing about this was demonstrably aggressive, but American leaders seem to do their best politically when the people have a clear and identifiable enemy to seethe at (and be distracted by). In this, the president was old-school normative establishment right down the line.
Notably, the speech also failed to even wink at one likely reason the war lasted so long: the trillions of dollars in mineral, gas and oil deposits lying fallow in Afghanistan. This is a rarely spoken answer to why we remained there for so long after the Taliban was defeated, after al-Qaeda was shattered, and after Osama bin Laden was killed: If the country could be brought under some semblance of control, there were riches to be plundered beyond the dreams of avarice. This, then, was another goal our efforts failed to achieve.
Here — the threats, the vague vocabulary of eternal war, the proffered example of existential menace, all wrapped in a dark fog surrounding our true goals that a thoroughly compromised corporate “news” media appears entirely unwilling or unable to penetrate — are the seeds that, if allowed to germinate again, will make the future look very much like the ash-coated battlegrounds of the present and past.
Biden’s speech on Tuesday was remarkable for one thing: Despite the occasional bouts of bog-standard bombast, it did not bristle with exuberant confidence, or ooze self-congratulation as if such feelings were an unquestioned birthright. It entirely lacked the glossy veneer of “American exceptionalism” that has scarred so many political speeches over the last 20 years and beyond. The president did not say, “We lost the war,” but that solemn message underscored almost every word he spoke.
When he was finished on Tuesday, Biden turned away from the podium, giving his back to a hail of questions from the assembled press. He paused, turned and retrieved a black face mask from the podium. Plodding slowly down the red-carpeted hall, he donned the mask before receding from view. Thus do we all plod into an uncertain future, again, but one with one less war to fight. We hope.