Roberta N. Haar

Why the fiasco in Afghanistan will haunt Biden

09 september 2021

In May, I wrote a column on the difficulties of ending the “forever war” in Afghanistan and wondered whether European allies should try to temper the Joe Biden administration’s withdrawal plans.

Although it was always clear that the perception of losing the war would be hard and humbling, the levels of chaos that accompanied the extraction and the excessive trauma inflicted upon the Afghan people were deeply shocking.  It became clear that Biden’s abrupt and complete withdrawal of American forces was a strategic error of significant magnitude.  Along with this realization is the question of how will this episode affect U.S. foreign policy going forward?

The Capitulation Agreement
One clear common goal that Biden shared with former President Donald J. Trump was to pull American troops out of Afghanistan after their nearly 20 years of fighting in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).  But when the Afghan army and government did not provide the hoped-for window for America to get out in an acceptable manner, Biden began an ignoble deflect and blame campaign, including accusing Trump because of the 4-page agreement that was made with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020.

This agreement is roundly dismissed, with Trump’s second National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, calling what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brokered the “capitulation agreement,” because of the many concessions that it handed the Taliban.  However, Biden could have said he would not honor it after the Taliban violated the stipulation to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul.  Additionally, Biden could have restrained his desire to play to a domestic audience by enunciating a date of withdrawal, especially one as symbolic as a 9/11 anniversary.

Biden’s Blackhawk down moment?
Since Biden did not resist an attempt to get a big symbolic win and clearly ignored those who said the collapse could be swift, we are left with contemplating how big might the political fallout be and what does the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government along with the killing of 13 American Marines portend for the future of American foreign policy?

More specifically, will the fiasco in Afghanistan become Biden’s Blackhawk Down moment?  It was after the downing of two Blackhawk helicopters and the killing of 19 American soldiers in 1993 in Somalia that the Bill Clinton administration contracted U.S. foreign interaction, explicitly formulating severely restrictive criteria on when, why, and how the U.S. would act on the world stage.  After the debacle in Mogadishu, Clinton avoided involvement in the war in Bosnia for three years and did nothing to stop the obvious genocide in Rwanda.  If emboldened jihadists move to control territory in Pakistan or in vulnerable places like Mali, Nigeria, or Mozambique, might Biden echo Clinton’s behavior in the 1990s?

The fact that the intervention in Afghanistan transformed into a humanitarian mission made it a riskier engagement for Biden than if the war concentrated on fighting terrorists that directly threatened the United States.  In 2015, I published research on the circumstances in which the U.S. uses its military to intervene for humanitarian purposes.  I found that U.S. presidents consistently avoided humanitarian intervention because it involves endangering the lives of American soldiers to protect individuals who do not vote in American elections and where national security is less at stake.  These facts further exacerbate partisanship in Congress because opposing the president carries fewer costs.

Add to these arguments the research done in 1995 by political science scholars Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith, which established that a military setback significantly increases the risk of a leader being removed from power, and we come to the conclusion that mistakes made in Afghanistan will affect Biden’s electoral potency in the midterm elections in 2022 and the general elections of 2024.  He might even follow in Lyndon Johnson’s footsteps and announce well in advance that he will not seek his party’s nomination for president.

Concerned allies
That sort of speculation feels overly dramatic at the moment.  But, even if Biden feels that his domestic support enables a run again in 2024, internationally his reputation is damaged.  Leaders in alliance countries openly questioned the withdrawal (former UK prime minister Tony Blair called it “imbecilic”) while the abrupt abandoning of an ally led to revived calls for an EU army.  Concerns about America’s resolve were felt across the globe, in Taiwan, in Ukraine and even in Israel.  In a bid to assuage those concerns, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said U.S. commitments to its partners are “sacrosanct and always have been.”

There are no real winners
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the poor planning and the lack of foresight that a collapse might be quick, is the advantage that it gave China, Russia, and China’s ally in the region, Pakistan.  If Biden wanted to end the war in Afghanistan to concentrate on projecting American might towards a rising China, why give China a boost by bungling the withdrawal and communicating to the world that allies can be perfunctorily jettisoned, (which is exactly what Trump did with his hasty decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria)?  The message that has been sent to the world is that no matter who is in the White House—a Democrat or a Republican—America is a fickle ally.  Moreover, why create a vacuum in Central Asia that Pakistan, China, or emboldened jihadists will now fill?

In February of this year, I wrote about the foreign policy qualifications that Biden brought to the presidency and that we should appreciate that his team was knowledgeable about foreign relations.  Today, I agree with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson that Biden’s attributes—his empathy, his way with allies, and his contrast to the last president’s chaos—over the last few weeks appear to be “inoperative.”  In revealing actions that do not match words, the fiasco in Afghanistan told the world that the U.S. is not in fact “back.”  Eight months into his presidency, Biden met his first real Leviathan, and the monster won.