Whatever your opinion of how America has handled its two-decade military occupation of Afghanistan, we should all recognize that withdrawing from that entanglement was never going to be easy for any president.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan was certainly justifiable: The U.S. intelligence community believed the Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden, and their offer to hand him off to a third party was rightly rejected out of hand. Even if you’re stridently opposed to nation building and peacekeeping operations, it’s hard to argue that we should simply allow a nation to shelter a terrorist who’d just killed thousands of Americans.

Once bin Laden was finally captured 10 years later (in neighboring Pakistan), the U.S. presence in Afghanistan became increasingly hard to justify. The simple goal of capturing or killing bin Laden was an easily recognizable one; the more amorphous goal of stabilizing Afghanistan is not. While hunting down terrorists who are targeting the United States is a reasonable objective, turning every country in the Middle East into a stable, honest pluralistic democracy is not.  

Once bin Laden was captured, Barack Obama could have prepared for a slow, reasonable drawdown of troops, but he didn’t. Instead, he kept the U.S. militarily engaged in Afghanistan for the rest of his term for no good reason. That led to the tragic scenes the United States – and the world – saw play out recently: of Americans being stranded in Kabul, and of desperate Afghans climbing aboard American military planes as they took off. While three other presidents share partial blame for our larger failure in Afghanistan, the failure this last week is solely the responsibility of the present administration. 

When the commander in chief makes a decision, it’s his job to ensure that it’s carried out properly. That’s true of any elected official who makes policy, but it’s especially true of the president’s decisions regarding combat. In this case, even if President Biden made the right decision by withdrawing, his execution of the policy was remarkably bungled in a way that should be embarrassing to all Americans and leave members of Congress with serious questions.  

Maine’s delegation split on the issue in predictable fashion: Rep. Chellie Pingree emphasized her opposition to the war without criticizing Biden. Rep. Jared Golden, himself a combat veteran, also supported withdrawal but called on the administration to leave troops in-country until all Americans were home evacuated. Sen. Susan Collins didn’t criticize Biden harshly but said that she’d been speaking to the administration about getting people out, while Angus King emphasized the bipartisan letter that he and 52 other U.S. senators (including Collins and Mitt Romney) sent urging the administration to act to help our Afghan allies. The reaction of the Maine delegation is widely reflective of the views of many members of Congress: Biden’s loyal supporters are just happy that he’s bringing troops back, while others are concerned to varying degrees about the evacuation. 

Setting aside, for the moment, the moral obligation that the United States has to do whatever it can to help its Afghan allies, the bungled withdrawal is also a political crisis for the Biden administration. The Afghanistan withdrawal is not like an economic recession, where nobody can quite predict the timing and the public ends up blaming whomever is in office at the time. To the contrary, this was a perfectly avoidable catastrophe that is of the administration’s own making, more similar to a mishandled response to a natural disaster.

That’s doubly damaging to Biden because a huge part of his political brand, gleefully emphasized by his allies in the media, was supposed to be basic competence, especially in contrast to the chaotic Trump administration. The chaos in Afghanistan completely blows apart that theory, showing that he can be just as susceptible to foolish mistakes as any other president.  

It’s not just that the administration repeatedly stated in public that they thought it would take months for the Taliban to accomplish what they managed in a few short weeks, it’s that they apparently never planned for the possibility of being wrong. Even if they believed they had months to prepare, there should have been a backup emergency plan for exactly this scenario; it’s pretty clear that there wasn’t much of one.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan was never going to be easy, but Biden handled it pretty much as poorly as it could have been. The question now for other Democrats is whether they’re more invested in defending him or in holding him accountable for his failures. 

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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