Writing about the 20-year long US intervention in Afghanistan for VNY is arduous.
Should I look at these events from a European perspective? Or should I go out of my way to embrace a US-centric view of the world?
The problem is that every word I write (or simply think, for that matter) could be interpreted as a stance supporting or opposing the choices of the US government, the choice to “bring democracy” to foreign countries, the will to fight terrorism, or supporting women’s rights in places where Sharia is the law of the country.
Quite frankly I am not comfortable with taking sides, because I know from experience that embracing a side is bound to get me straight into the quicksands of cognitive dissonance, i.e. values and beliefs conflict with one another, and thinking straight becomes difficult. Even finding a coherent worldview becomes impossible. I genuinely hate that feeling, believe me.
My solution is usually to take a step back, or five if necessary. What’s the big picture here? What are we trying to achieve?
I write “we” and, bam!, a new question pops up. Who’s “we”? We Europeans or we Americans? Or we the coalition of NATO allies? Or we the western countries? Or even we as human beings that inhabit the same planet?
These philosophical interrogatives are probably making you wonder if this article is like a space probe bound to get lost in outer space. Yet, I find that these are the kind of foundational questions that whoever runs a country called the United States of America should have a solid answer to.
What is this new administration going to try and achieve? What are its main goals?
My take is that there are three ways to interpret the role of POTUS in 2021.
- I am the President of the US of A, and my primary concern is the well-being of Americans here and now. Everything else comes second.
- Today’s world is an entangled mess. An isolated America that does not take allies in proper consideration is going to be negatively affected in the medium and long term, as the US government’s ability to influence what happens outside of US borders will be greatly impaired. If we let our allies down, in Europe or elsewhere, they’ll be less willing to cooperate with us on a variety of issues that will greatly impact our future prosperity. The USA has to be primus inter pares, leading coalitions of partners who cooperate for the common well-being. I am the President of the US of A, and I will make sure that our allies trust us and together we achieve our common goals.
- We have a problem. It’s new and it’s freaking big. We are fucking up the only one planet we have. The only hope for mankind’s survival is that the whole world comes together as a team and together we figure out how to solve the problem before it’s too late (assuming it’s not too late already). I am the President of the US of A and I will go out of my way to preserve the planet.
If we look at past US presidents after WWII and up to Barack Obama, they have all been “type 2”, regardless of their party affiliation. Presidents might have leaned left or right, but, in the end, they all came to the conclusion that investing a ton of money in subsidizing foreign groups, factions and countries, was a good idea for America in the long term and in the big scheme of things. By the same token, military power that could be unleashed rapidly and deployed thousands of miles away from home has always been a distinctive American feature since WWII (was it a tool to bring democracy to the world? Or was it meant to protect American interests? mmm… whatever).
Then came the MAGA guy, the quintessential example of how populism could wreak havoc in the US too. Donald Trump has been a “type 1” president. Arguably, the “America first” president re-introduced type 1 presidency into modern times. When Trump entered the White House, the whole world went into “brace for impact” mode. One could argue rather convincingly that having a global hegemonic superpower does not jive well with the rhetoric of democracy. Except that, we now know, equally convincingly one could argue that having no superpower is much worse.
Global challenges are huge and, well, global. No single country can address them, and a self-appointed cop with a gun is still a lot better than no one in charge of enforcing a modicum of law and order when it’s really needed.
Which brings us to Joe Biden. What kind of president is Biden? Back in November 2020, I would have had no doubt in indicating that Biden would fall somewhere between type 2 and type 3, with type 3 as a more likely outcome. After all, Biden clearly indicated that climate change was one of the key issues his administration was going to address, along with a renewed impulse to reestablish cooperation with its international partners. I was not alone in my belief. Italian President Sergio Mattarella rushed to congratulate Biden for his election as soon as CNN announced it, welcoming the return of Multilateralism. Other international leaders sent similar messages. Big sigh of relief. The world could finally stop holding its breath and start working with a “sane” USA on tackling common challenges.
Come summer 2021, though, I am no longer so sure. Certainly Biden has reverted many of Trump’s policies, but not all of them. Trump had revealed an inhumane side in how he dealt with people. He obviously wanted to show his supporters that he was capable of cruelty (one trait of his personality that I found deeply troubling). For the sake of example, I’ll mention the machinery that he set up to separate illegal immigrant families and detain kids, or the (entertained) idea of stripping foreign students in the US of their visas (if Covid forces students to attend remotely, non-Americans might as well go back to wherever they came from, or something like that). The guy was obviously animated by pure evil.
The Biden administration intends to look gentler, more compassionate. If we look closer, though, not a lot has changed on some fronts: immigrants are still pushed back at the border (which is sad but understandable) and non-residents are not allowed to enter the US because of Covid (I don’t quite get the motivation behind that decision. We are well into the second year of dealing with the pandemic. Covid is everywhere and EU countries have it under control, arguably more control than the US has achieved if we consider that the Delta variant is running rampant here).
But these are not the only two aspects on which Biden has avoided reversing the course taken by his predecessor.
Trump had struck a deal with the Taliban that essentially came down to “do whatever you want as long as you allow us to pull out gracefully, with no loss of American lives”. The populist handbook has always been clear about this: go for low-hanging fruit that can be framed as great achievements with the most gullible side of the electorate, the Dunning Krugers that will embrace any factoids that corroborate their “me-and-now first” narrative. And if the long term consequences of wrong calls are bad, so be it: someone else will need to pick up the pieces and deal with them another time.
Trump’s message was clear: I am the president that focuses on America first, saves taxpayers’ money and doesn’t bother with fixing other countries’ problems.
The big surprise came when Biden decided to follow on Trump’s path by stating that his hands were tied because of the agreement that the US struck with the Taliban two years earlier. I call bullshit. We all know that Biden is perfectly able to revert his predecessor’s decisions… if he wants to. And that’s the point. He obviously didn’t want to do it in this case. His take was that Afghanistan had cost the US way too much already. It was time to pull out and use those resources elsewhere.
Whether that was a good decision or not is above my pay grade, but one thing is for sure: this is not how a type 3 president rolls, and while it may be argued that Obama (type 2) set the withdrawal in motion, exiting Afghanistan abruptly is the kind of behavior that fits a type 1 president perfectly.
Was pulling out of Afghanistan the right decision for America? I’ve read multiple and conflicting viewpoints by people way more qualified than me to judge. In the end, pulling out of Afghanistan, whether right or wrong, is ultimately a legitimate decision by a US president that he can defend with some valid reasons.
Yet, a question puzzles me.
Why did it have to be such a major clusterfuck?
People falling off from airplanes that take off in the middle of crowded runways? Taliban fighters hanging out in the presidential palace still incredulous of what they achieved without even fighting? Taliban militia showing off millions of dollars’ worth of US-made guns, weapons, SUVs and even helicopters that are now in their possession? Seriously?
These images will be iconic and will stick in people’s minds for decades to come. And all this after months, or even years, of supposedly careful planning? Give me a break! What the heck happened in Kabul?
The announcement that the US was withdrawing had come a long time ago and the US never signaled that it was changing its mind. So how did we possibly get to this domino of catastrophic events?
The devil is in the details
I’ve read a lot of what has been written in the last two weeks, but things don’t quite add up yet. The Taliban may have been at the gates of Kabul, but I know that US compounds abroad, particularly those in the Middle-East (Kabul and Baghdad), are some sort of Fort Knox on foreign soil. They host the US embassies along with the embassies of other allied countries. A friend of mine, a diplomat who is familiar with them, told me about the security of those places and how heavily militarized they are. US compounds are inhabited by the world’s top military in terms of training and capability. Just to put things in perspective, Hezbollah militias attacked the US embassy compound in Baghdad on December 31, 2019. Saying that the attack was easily repelled would be an understatement: the Americans didn’t flinch.
Focusing on the Kabul compound specifically, there is no way elite American soldiers would be scared of a few Taliban on the outside. The American public opinion may have the images of the 2012 attack in Benghazi still vivid in people’s minds, and subconsciously assume that Kabul was in a similar situation, but this would be very far from the truth. Helicopters leaving the Kabul compound are not the image of an exceptional situation, as the media has subliminally led us to believe. They are the normal way with which people and goods are carried in and out of the compound.
The reality, brought to us by German Chancellor Angela Merkel a few days ago, is that the decision to evacuate the US Embassy was dictated by panic and incompetence, and that this triggered a domino effect, including the sudden exfiltration of diplomatic personnel of all other countries. Ultimately, this led to the collapse of the resistance against the Taliban, and to president Ashraf Ghani’s ignominious escape, leaving the country in chaos and at the mercy of the Taliban.
If this was a hand in a poker game with millions of dollars in the pot, the Taliban raised $5 and the US folded. Everyone else, in turn, was scared by that move, fearing that the USA might know something while they didn’t, so they rushed to fold too, allowing the Taliban to win the pot, and enter the presidential palace only a few hours later with an incredulous look on their faces.
The buck stops here… or does it?
At this point the key question is: who gave the order to evacuate the US embassy from one minute to the next? Granted, the answer must be Biden ultimately. “The buck stops here” is a famous quote that most of us are familiar with. The president is the one responsible for the final decisions of his cabinet and Biden himself also pronounced Harry Truman’s words on this occasion. Yet Biden did try to “pass the buck” when he also blamed the Afghans for not setting up enough resistance against the Taliban. Biden’s move is not so much about taking responsibility, but rather to act as a shield for his cabinet: no one can be singled out and nobody is to blame after Biden’s words.
This being the case, taking a closer look into the decision process of his cabinet seems a fair ask.
How come that nobody foresaw the collapse of the Afghan government? Who took the decision to evacuate the embassy overnight? Was it the national security advisor, Jake Sullivan? How come nobody advised Sullivan or the president about the consequences of such an abrupt move?
Given the results, Americans deserve a clearer view into the inner workings of Biden’s administration. If that was Biden’s decision, whose advice did he take? What intel was actually provided that led to such a catastrophic outcome for Afghanistan, the US and its allies?
The image of the US took a blow from which it might take years to recover. This cannot be blamed on the Afghans, who, after all, did fight against the Taliban without direct US military support in the last few months. Americans have the right to know more.
I heard Richard Clarke, a security and counter-terrorism expert that worked for multiple US administrations in the past, being interviewed on CNN a couple of days ago. He thinks that someone in the administration had screwed up really badly and, as a consequence, heads must roll. I think this is a harsh, yet legitimate position. The truth needs to emerge in the name of government accountability.
In conclusion, there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered and the American people have the right to know what the government has been up to, just like they did when Trump was sitting in the Oval Office. Someone in the Biden cabinet has screwed up badly. So badly that the White House cannot honestly think to cover it up and get away with it.
It seems that Biden’s strategy is to take all the blame on himself and then deflect it on the Afghans. This is a move to avoid accountability and it is not OK. Americans are entitled to the truth. And if the attempt to hide it will trigger a Kabulgate, so be it.