In the coming weeks, we will see a lot of political and foreign policy voices trying to pinpoint the moment or decision that doomed Afghanistan to a return to the brutal rule of the Taliban.
Neil Stevens makes one of the fairer assessments, contending that once the Taliban had a de facto sanctuary on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the U.S. effort was doomed in the long run. The Taliban could simply sit, recruit and build up their forces, and wait until America and its allies left.
And yet, the Bush administration didn’t have many good options regarding Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf was doing just enough to demonstrate that he was on “our side,” and a decision to send lots of U.S. troops across the border – like the scrubbed operation that was turning into the “invasion of Pakistan” in 2005 – ran the risk of another coup or popular uprising, replacing Musharraf with someone worse – some sort of Islamist nut who would gain access to an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Go after the Taliban across the border, and maybe you crush them once and for all. Or maybe you end up with an even bigger, bloodier war.
Establishing any kind of functioning government in Afghanistan was always going to be a heavy lift; the Soviet invasion and decades of civil war had simply broken the country. Every faction using rape as a weapon, performed mass executions and scorched earth tactics, and burned villages to the ground. Infrastructure, communications, education, civil society – the U.S.-led coalition was attempting to rebuild a country, more or less from the ground up, in a place that had only known tribes and traditions for most of its history.
So the Bush administration did the best it could with a menu of bad options, which is what policymakers are almost always forced to do. And the man who replaced him ended up doing the same, although he, too made it sound easier before he stepped into the Oval Office.
Obama declared in 2008, “[Afghanistan] has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism.” On the campaign trail, he declared, “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” Some foreign policy analysts believed Obama could change the dynamic in the region, just by taking office: “A President Obama, says Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who popularized the term ‘soft power’ to describe the capacity to gain support through attraction rather than force, ‘would do more for America’s soft power around the world than anything else we could do.’”
Credit Obama for ordering the bin Laden raid that Biden opposed. But all of that vaunted ‘soft power’ meant little for Afghanistan. By the end of Obama’s presidency, the messy, unsatisfying status quo had continued. Politico called Afghanistan “Obama’s sorriest legacy.” NBC News concluded Obama “pledged to run insurgents out of Afghanistan. But to the dismay of millions of Afghans, the war has not been won or even finished.” And then, four years later, the Trump administration chose to trust the Taliban, pressured the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners, and announced proudly they had ended the “forever war” – by agreeing to a course of action that was, at minimum, likely to let the Taliban retake power in the near future.
Sometimes a foreign policy challenge doesn’t have a good answer, and a leader must choose the least bad option. But that grim realism doesn’t fit well with a foreign policy crew who likes to brag about their so-called “smart power”, that promised “from day one of a Biden administration, other countries will once again have reason to trust and respect the word of an American president,” and that boasted, “America is back!” upon taking office.
It’s one thing for a 47-year-old first-term senator to enter the Oval Office with a naive and under-developed grasp of foreign affairs. There’s always a chance that the green, inexperienced leader will learn from experience.
But it is much more ominous when a 78-year-old, former seven-term senator, former two-term vice president, and the most experienced new president ever to assume his duties, brimming with overconfidence that he’s got it all figured out, and foul up royally. There’s little reason to think Biden will ever change.