Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Blame Biden for Afghanistan’s Return to the Dark Ages

Executions, sex slavery, ethnic cleansing—and yet the president says “I do not regret my decision.”
August 13, 2021
Blame Biden for Afghanistan’s Return to the Dark Ages
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 1: Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicant Mohammed Arif Ahmadzai, 41, holds an image of himself with US military personnel while at his home on August 1, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mohammed worked for almost 8 years as a combat translator from 2003-2010 for the US Army, the Marines as well as on the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and the Special Forces in Kunar province. He applied for the the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) paying the visa and medical fees costing him over $2,000 but was denied in 2014 without what he viewed as sufficient explanation. He is currently appealing his case. Thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States government during its nearly 20-year war here now fear for their safety as the US withdraws its troops from the country. Many of these Afghans, who worked as interpreters and translators for US intelligence agencies and military branches, have applied to come to the US as part of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, with the first such group arriving in the US last month. But, for most SIV candidates, the timeline for relocation remains unknown. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

The Joe Biden who promised to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy is the same Joe Biden now stubbornly paving the way for the world’s cruelest human-rights abusers to re-establish their regime in Afghanistan.

Biden had promised us that he would restore the soul of America, but words are cheap. As the remaining U.S. troops have left Afghanistan, Afghan provinces have been falling to the Taliban like dominos. Men of the Afghan military are reportedly being executed. Women and young girls are being forced into marriage and sex slavery. And the same Biden administration that prides itself on its concern for social justice, racial justice, gender justice, and LGBT pride is going to stand by and watch girls’ schools shut down, ethnic cleansing against Shi’ite Hazaras, and homosexuals stoned to death.

As reported by Axios, “the Taliban has toppled nine provincial capitals in six days and now controls an estimated 65% of the country.” It “is striking with impressive speed and coordination, a senior Biden official grudgingly acknowledged. Afghans and international security are scrambling to manage mayhem.”

As if to underscore the rout, Biden dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad—both Trump’s and Biden’s envoy for Afghan peace talks—to bribe the Taliban to spare the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He failed. And so, on Thursday, U.S. embassy staffers began evacuating.

A few months into his administration, Donald Trump ordered strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s airfields. Trump was shaken after H.R. McMaster showed him pictures of gassed children. This week, Biden took the opposite route, saying, “I do not regret my decision.”

Stubbornly, Biden is refusing to admit the disaster that is plainly unfolding. It turns out that there never was a contingency plan for the pullout because there was never a plan to pull out. The Afghans were not warned to prepare for what was to come. Quite the opposite, they found out like the rest of us, from their televisions, at a time when a third of their air force was down, and remains down, due to parts shortages.

President Biden, however, could have prepared. He had access to all the secret intelligence he needed, which the Department of Defense used to warn him about the inevitable catastrophe—not that any especially deep analysis or original insight was needed to know what would follow the announcement of a timed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The bipartisan, international Afghanistan Study Group more or less predicted this outcome back in February.

The fecklessness is not limited to Biden himself; his wider administration is complicit. State Department spokesman Ned Price has conceded that the Taliban is already committing war crimes, and he has warned them that, if they continue, they will be internationally isolated. The Taliban, though, does not seek recognition from gentle liberals. Besides, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, the Chinese, and the Russians are already moving ahead with recognizing the Taliban regime as soon as Kabul falls, which is likely just a matter of weeks under the current trajectory. Each is anticipating a mass influx of refugees in its territory, and they need to be nice to the Taliban to stop this. Each also fears a regime that could export terrorism into its territory.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is promising air support for the Afghan military, yet refusing to commit to it after the August 31 withdrawal deadline, rushing to add that their hands are tied as the insurgents are now in populated areas, where airstrikes would risk civilian casualties. The dark and crude joke writes itself: It would be a terrible tragedy if innocent lives were taken by American airstrikes, innocent lives with so much potential and promise of being beheaded or sexually enslaved by the Taliban, if only our airstrikes let them.

This is a horrible, epic defeat and disaster. When George H.W. Bush watched as genocide unfolded in Yugoslavia, when Bill Clinton stood a spectator during a genocide in Rwanda, when Barack Obama watched as Assad burned his country and killed half a million Syrians—when the reality of those disasters became clear, nobody resigned. Now, as Biden is condemning Afghans to a return to the dark ages, expect Jake Sullivan, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, Samantha Power, and their subordinates to show up to work like nothing has happened.

Culpability for this disaster rests in one other place: with the American people.

“White House officials have privately reassured themselves by noting that polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan,” the Hill reports. So the Biden team finds reassurance in the fact that most Americans do not care about the risk of another 9/11, ethnic cleansing, or the destruction of a future for Afghan women? You would think the Biden administration would find that fact disturbing, and would undertake the work of shaping such public opinion rather than taking comfort in it.

Public opinion is tricky. In 2009, most Americans also wanted out of Iraq, which President Barack Obama tasked then-Vice President Biden with. Over the next two years, Biden appeared to execute that withdrawal flawlessly. But three years later, prisoners were being burned alive and journalists were being beheaded. Public opinion shifted, and U.S. forces were deployed to Iraq again.

It is technically true that most Americans today want U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan. But it would be more accurate to say that they don’t care about Afghanistan—until they have to, and then they will care about it a lot. The withdrawal of U.S. forces will not move the needle on the president’s approval rating, certainly not in the direction he wants it moved. But when the Taliban reminds Americans who they are—once the pictures of sex-slave women and beheaded men circulate in social media—Americans will begin to care. And they will blame Biden just like they did Obama for the Islamic State.

The American people want out of Afghanistan because most of them have no idea what U.S. forces have been doing there in recent years. Americans think that our troops are still fighting the Taliban, even though that stopped seven years ago. They think that American blood and treasure are flowing in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, even though the money spent is nominal, even though no American blood has spilled in over a year, even though it is more dangerous to be a miner in America than an American combatant in Afghanistan. The American people could be persuaded of the value of staying if their president explained what we do in Afghanistan and why we do it, which no president has done in a decade and a half. But President Biden wants to follow rather than lead public opinion, a fact for which the Afghan people will pay a terrible price.

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.