This afternoon, Joe Biden delivered some harsh remarks about the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
On July 8th, just a few weeks ago and in the same briefing room, Biden gave a speech about plans to pull US troops out of the country. In it, he reiterated a lot of lines he said today. But he also had a back-and-forth with a reporter that now feels particularly poignant.
“Mr President, some Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their experience in this withdrawal in Afghanistan,” the reporter in question said. “Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam?”
“None whatsoever,” Biden shot back immediately. “Zero. What you had is — you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our embassy — six, if I’m not mistaken. The Taliban is not… the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the United States embassy from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
How optimistic those words seem today, as hundreds of people descend upon Kabul Airport in the hope that they might be able to storm their way onto an evacuation flight, and as one person was even seen in horrific video footage seemingly falling from the sky after holding on to one plane’s wheel. As diplomats and journalists scramble to leave and as social media broadcasts show women running for their lives, one does wonder if the president regrets what he said. It was a naive prediction.
“I’m going to be straight with you,” Biden said today, looking down the camera. “The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.” Afghani politicians “gave up and fled the country,” he added. The Afghan military “collapsed, sometimes without even trying to fight.” “We gave them every chance,” he continued, “…but we could not provide them the will to fight for their future.”
For a man who made compassion his brand, it felt a little jarring. He had said at the beginning of his speech that the aim in Afghanistan was never “nation-building,” nor constructing a democracy to mirror America’s own. Instead, he said, the invasion had always been about the United States: “I want to remind everyone how we got here and what America’s interests are in Afghanistan,” he said, “…We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden and we got him. That was a decade ago… [This was about] preventing a terrorist attack on our American homeland.” He added that there was little point in staying in the country any longer because the Taliban was “yesterday’s threats”. As Henry Kissinger once infamously said, America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.
Biden was careful to remind viewers that he “inherited a deal negotiated with the Taliban by Donald Trump.” (Meanwhile, Trump released a statement on his official website saying simply: “Afghanistan is the most embarrassing military outcome in the history of the United States. It didn’t have to be that way!”) “I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden went on, saying that he knew he’d face criticism but he’d rather endure all that ire than “pass this on to another president”. Above all, he said, it would be “wrong to ask Americans to step up” when Afghanistan’s own military would not. Their political class were “unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down,” so too bad. And by the way, “China and Russia would love nothing more” than for America to pour its time, efforts and money into trying to keep a perpetually unstable Afghanistan stable.
So what next? The US will “lead with our diplomacy,” Biden said, before immediately adding that the US had “safely shut down our embassy and transferred our diplomats”. People with a connection to America would be able to come to the country on visas. Troops would return. Everyone would have to accept that this would have happened whether he had withdrawn in “one year, five years or twenty years”.
It was a hard-nosed speech. He made a quick nod at the end toward the women and girls whose lives will be impacted by the return of the Taliban. The message was: I took the tough decision. This was inevitable. I’m being the adult in the room. And as members of the military themselves have told the media today, the war in Afghanistan was always viewed by people on the ground as fundamentally unwinnable.
Should we have reasonably expected more from President Biden? Though he campaigned on kindness, he has always been clear: America and Americans are his concern. He does not subscribe to the idea of staying until one’s own mess is cleared up. He will not take responsibility for what he sees as beyond his purview, or for anything that doesn’t directly impact people inside the US. Neither is he interested — at least any longer — in shaping the world in America’s image. This is who he really is.
And while he said China and Russia would “love nothing more” than to see the US stay another decade in Afghanistan, losing lives and dollars week by week, it’s hard to imagine those same countries aren’t experiencing a little schadenfreude today. As Taliban insurgents flood the presidential palace and chant “Death to America!” into TV cameras on the street, few can imagine Putin — the man whose government reportedly paid bounties to Afghan militants to kill US soldiers — shedding a tear for another doomed American project. The question now is how many tears will now be shed by the innocent civilians caught up in that “never-ending war” and its brutal conclusion.
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