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Biden’s Disingenuous Speech on the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Strawmen, falsehoods, and victim-blaming.
August 17, 2021
Biden’s Disingenuous Speech on the Afghanistan Withdrawal
President Joe Biden departs after delivering remarks about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on August 16, 2021 in Washington,DC. - President Joe Biden broke his silence Monday on the US fiasco in Afghanistan with his address to the nation from the White House, as a lightning Taliban victory sent the Democrat's domestic political fortunes reeling. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)

President Joe Biden returned to the White House from Camp David on Monday to address the nation about the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan: the Taliban takeover, the Afghans desperate to leave, the chaos and violence. The president did not express regret either for pulling U.S. forces from Afghanistan—“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said—or for the layers of lethal incompetence with which the pullout has been executed.

Had Biden come out and said “This was badly handled, the situation is now terrible, and here is how we are going to improve things and help the thousands of Afghans who desperately need us,” his remarks would have been at least admirably frank. The closest he came to that sort of candor was the admission that the Taliban takeover “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” Instead of candor, what is most striking about Biden’s speech is the number of disingenuous passages, strawman arguments, and outright falsehoods. Here are eight:

1. “We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency.”

The events of the weekend put the lie to the claim that there was a contingency plan worthy of the name. Biden administration officials backed up this claim in various media appearances on Monday, as when Jon Finer, the deputy national security advisor, said this on NPR:

This is one of the sort of scenarios that was envisioned at the time of the decision. And I think the best evidence of that is the contingency planning that has been going on for several months for exactly this sort of situation. That is why these forces that you now see at the airport seeking to maintain security were prepositioned in the field. We were able to bring them in without them having to fight their way into Kabul, that we were able to evacuate our entire embassy compound, which was completed yesterday, again, without having to fight to do that. All of that is the execution of a plan that has been in place for months. Now, you know, you rightly ask, I think, did this all fall apart? Did the Afghan security forces all fall apart and melt away more quickly than I think many people expected? It’s undeniable that that is the case. But there was a contingency plan in place for that scenario. You’re seeing us execute that in real time right now.

The notion that there was a real contingency plan because we sent in a few thousand troops to protect our evacuees is hardly convincing. Thankfully, it seems likely that all U.S. citizens will be able to leave the country. But then there is the matter of our equipment, and all the weapons we are leaving behind. About a thousand C-17 aircraft-loads of U.S. materiel were flown out of Afghanistan in recent months, but a great deal has been left behind because of the chaotic end of the mission. As a result, the Taliban now possesses one of the largest Black Hawk helicopter squadrons in the world—because we just left them behind. This is on top of all the munitions, rifles, Humvees, and tanks they now own. Overnight, the Taliban went from being a bunch of riffraff insurgents in flip-flops with AK-47s to a formidable military with advanced weapons. If that’s a contingency plan, it is a terrible one.

President Biden also asserted in his remarks that “the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.”  That is debatable (one could argue that the Taliban was stronger in 2009 before the Obama surge). But what is not debatable is that the Taliban is now the strongest it has ever been in its entire history—thanks to the botched U.S. withdrawal.

2. “Some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier.”

Meanwhile, to the extent that the Biden administration had a contingency plan for dealing with refugees, it apparently was just for U.S. troops to stand by in case the situation went south, ready to intervene if things deteriorated. That’s it. Again, that’s hardly a contingency plan.

The administration had months to plan for a refugee program. It failed to do so in a serious, competent way. Matt Zeller, an Afghanistan War veteran and the founder of No One Left Behind, powerfully criticized the claim that the administration was prepared for the refugee situation yesterday:

There was such a profound, bold-faced lie in that [Biden] speech—the idea that we planned for every contingency? I have been personally trying to tell this administration since it took office. I have been trying to tell our government for years that this was coming. We sent them plan after plan on how to evacuate these people. Nobody listened to us. They didn’t plan for the evacuation of our Afghan wartime allies. They are trying to conduct it now at the eleventh hour. . . .

I’m appalled that [Biden] thinks we only need to take 2,000 people. There [are] 86,000 people who are currently left behind in Afghanistan alone. We’ve identified all of them for the government. I have no idea why—he claims that people don’t want to leave Afghanistan. I have a list of 14,000 names right now of people who want to get out of Afghanistan.

The pictures of people begging to get out and the footage of people strapping themselves to airplanes and even falling from the sky make clear that there were large numbers of Afghans desperate to leave well before the Taliban takeover.

Remember, thousands of Afghans—mostly military members and civilian public figures—had applied for visas, and their passports were at the U.S. embassy. They never got their visas, and they never got their passports back, either.

3. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”

It is, at best, an incomplete account of what happened to blame the Afghans for their unwillingness to fight. After President Biden announced in April his intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, key components of our support for the Afghan military came to an end—including vitally important logistical support. A significant part of the failure of Afghan forces to fight and fight well is the Biden administration’s fault.

4. “I cannot and I will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war” and “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

This is the pre-9/11 mentality that contributed to 9/11. It is the same thinking that led to the horrible Syrian civil war which energized populist movements in Europe and the United States. It is reminiscent of the language of Neville Chamberlain (“a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”).

President Biden repeatedly promised upon taking office that American leadership was back. But global leadership makes somebody else’s problems also your problems. American troops remain stationed in postwar Germany and postwar Japan today, not to mention South Korea and Italy and many other countries, all in greater numbers than were still in Afghanistan before this pullout. Our troops were not “fight[ing] on endlessly” in Afghanistan, they were providing an invaluable stabilizing element keeping the Taliban at bay. The price to pay for that withdrawal may prove very high.

And Americans were by and large no longer shedding blood for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Florida reported more COVID deaths on Saturday than killed in action in Afghanistan since 2014. The financial and blood burden was minimal because we stopped fighting there. Thousands upon thousands of Afghans bravely died in combat to save their country every year within the same time period, knowing that they were enabled and backed by the United States, and believing that the backing would continue.

5. “The terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan.”

President Biden is correct to point to the dangers of terrorism coming from outside Afghanistan: “al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, [and] ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.” It is true that, as Biden says, “these threats warrant our attention and our resources.”

But it is misleading of Biden to imply that the threat hasn’t also metastasized in Afghanistan.

Again, we have now made the Taliban the strongest it has ever been, due to the much greater equipment and weapons we left behind, in addition to the fine fighters we trained whom the Taliban will give the “choice” of entering the ranks of the Taliban military or watching the deaths of their loved ones.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but al Qaeda still exists and may well find Afghanistan under the restored Taliban welcoming. It seems all but certain that other anti-American terrorist entities will establish themselves in the country. “If necessary,” Biden said, the United States will conduct counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan. Wouldn’t it have been much easier to conduct such missions if we had stayed in the country?

The president also referred to the U.S. “over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed”—a reference to the U.S. carrier strike groups rotating in and out of the region. But again: Our capacity for action in the region is much diminished with the loss of our foothold in Afghanistan, including especially Bagram Air Base, which U.S. forces literally abandoned in the dark of night. Bagram was the only air base the United States had between the Middle East and Japan.

6. “China and Russia would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.” 

This claim is simply wrong. Setting aside the American humiliation, which the Chinese and Russian regimes are evidently enjoying, the United States just voluntarily gave up the only military base it had in a country that neighbors China, in addition to neighboring Iran and being in close proximity to the Asian side of Russia—a major asset for potential counterterrorism operations, espionage against great power adversaries, and military operations. Add to this how our withdrawal damages our relationship with India, an important Quad member.

7. “I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”

Maybe there was never a “good” time for withdrawing U.S. forces, but there certainly were less bad times, as Frederick W. Kagan devastatingly points out in the New York Times:

As U.S. military planners well know, the Afghan war has a seasonal pattern. The Taliban leadership retreats to bases, largely in Pakistan, every winter and then launches the group’s fighting season campaign in the spring, moving into high gear in the summer after the poppy harvest. At the very least, the United States should have continued to support the Afghans through this period to help them blunt the Taliban’s latest offensive and buy time to plan for a future devoid of American military assistance.

American diplomats could have used this time to negotiate access to regional bases from which to continue counterterrorism operations. Simultaneously, the American military should have prepared contingencies in case those negotiations failed. And even that plan would have meant contending with an increasingly brazen Taliban. (A report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the Taliban launched its latest offensive after U.S. and coalition forces officially began drawing down in May.)

8. “I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban.”

It is true that Donald Trump initiated the withdrawal process, bragged about it, reached a deal with the Taliban, and wanted to host more meetings with the Taliban.

But Biden was not bound by that deal. First, the Taliban itself had violated the agreement since its inception by cooperating with al Qaeda and assaulting the Afghan military.

Second, Biden himself had disregarded aspects of Trump’s deal with the Taliban. The Trump-Taliban deal would have had the United States out of the country by May; it’s August, and we have not finished our withdrawal.

Third, and most importantly, the idea that Biden was somehow bound by this one terrible Trump agreement with the Taliban is absurd on its face. Biden has repeatedly rejected Trump’s policies—including Trump’s international policies: the Paris Agreement, the Keystone XL pipeline, the “remain in Mexico” policy, and much else. If Biden wanted to reject the Trump deal, the Taliban’s own violations gave ample valid grounds for doing so.

Biden’s claim about being bound by Trump’s deal is true in one limited sense: If he had chosen to reject the deal Trump worked out with the Taliban, then it is likely that U.S. forces would have faced more attacks, including likely more “green-on-blue” attacks (in which Afghan forces are turned and attack American allies). That was a real possibility—but compared to the stakes, not a strong reason to stick with Trump’s bad deal with the Taliban.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.