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20 August 2021

Where has the Afghanistan crisis left Joe Biden?

Unlike Afghan refugees, who face immediate consequences, American voters can take time to assess their president's response.

By Emily Tamkin

On 18 August, President Joe Biden told ABC News that the Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal from the country, is going through an “existential crisis” about whether it wants to be recognised as a legitimate government by the international community.

The idea that the Taliban is reflecting on what it wants to be, however, seems to contradict the scenes at Kabul airport this week, where many Afghans have tried desperately to leave the country.

The comments follow a series of odd statements from the president after Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August. In a speech to the nation on 16 August, Biden said that Afghans hadn’t been willing to fight for themselves. In his ABC interview, he said that his administration made no mistakes in its implementation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Although it is true that Afghan forces quickly collapsed after the withdrawal, it is also true that tens of thousands of Afghans have died fighting alongside US and allied forces since America invaded 20 years ago. In addition, the aerial advantage that the US gave Afghan forces against the Taliban disappeared when the contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters were removed.

We will see, in time, how the American public feels about Biden’s defiant tone. It is possible that the war-weary nation will ultimately agree that the US departure was always going to be chaotic, no matter how it was carried out. And it is possible that, when images from Kabul stop rolling on TV and the conversation moves on, Americans will be grateful they don’t have to remember to forget about the war in Afghanistan any more.

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It is also possible that Americans will decide that the disgrace and humiliation to their nation comes only from the withdrawal, and not from the cronyism and “rampant corruption” that “flourished” during the US occupation, as the former US government official and journalist Sarah Chayes put it. Or from the drone strikes that hit civilians. Or from the fact that, per a report out this week from the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, US government agencies rarely sufficiently monitored and evaluated the consequences of their actions. It is possible that Americans will look at this final humiliation in isolation, and decide that it is Biden who failed the great United States. 

But while Americans are deciding what this means, the president and his administration will have to decide what his choices mean for Afghans wanting to leave their country. There are reports that the White House was hesitant to relocate too many Afghans to the US for fear of Republican attacks. Stephen Miller, a Donald Trump adviser responsible for some of his most draconian immigration policies, is reportedly urging the Republican Party to push for Afghans to be resettled somewhere else. 

Biden has written a memo signing off $500m to the secretary of state Antony Blinken for “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan, including applicants for Special Immigrant Visas”. That is a start, but it is not enough. In 2020 – the same year Trump made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan – the US took in fewer than 2,000 Afghan refugees.

The US can and arguably should make up the difference now. If America can spend more than a trillion dollars at war, then it can spend as much as is necessary to help those whose lives it upended, both through the conflict and the manner of withdrawal. 

That will take political courage on Biden’s part. But this is the time for him to decide what kind of president he wants to be, and what kind of role in the world he wants the US to have. Consider it a moment of truth. Or, if you prefer, an existential crisis.

[See also: The Taliban’s new reign of terror]