In February 2020, Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, was interviewed on the US news programme, Face the Nation, on CBS. The host, Margaret Brennan, turned to the subject of Afghanistan, and reminded Biden what he had said in 2010: “I’m not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights. It just won’t work. Not what we’re there for.” She asked him what he meant. “What I meant,” Biden clarified, “was there’s a thousand places we could go to deal with injustice. I can think of 10 countries where women and or children and or people are being persecuted or being hurt. But the idea of us going to be able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world is not within our capacity.”
Brennan then asked if Biden would bear any “responsibility for the outcome if the Taliban ends up back in control and women end up losing their rights?” Biden replied that he didn’t. “Are you telling me that we should go to war with China because what they’re doing to the Uyghurs, a million Uyghurs, in concentration camps? Is that what you’re saying to me?”
On the one hand, Biden’s answer was cold-hearted and wrong. If you invade and then occupy a country for 20 years, fail to adequately train Afghan security forces and oversee a failing state and corrupt government, and then leave, exposing people (especially women and girls) to the brutal rule of the Taliban, that is a reflection of the callousness of American power.
On the other hand, Biden was right. The idea that the US should police every possible human rights violation throughout the world would require it to militarily occupy numerous countries at great cost to American treasure, men and materiel. Nor can the US be expected to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, perpetuating what is already the longest war in American history.
This is the situation that the Biden administration finds itself in. As Biden announced this spring, American troops are due to leave by the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001. The Taliban is retaking the country. The situation is so dire that the US reportedly tried to negotiate with the Taliban to leave its embassy in Kabul unharmed and sent thousands of troops back to Afghanistan to evacuate Americans. Kabul could fall in a month.
It did not have to be this way. In 2001, as journalist Spencer Ackerman recounts in his new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, the Taliban told the US that it would demobilise, provided its then leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, could remain under house arrest. The George W Bush administration declined and continued its war. The US has been at war ever since, and Biden’s options are either to cede the country to the Taliban or perpetuate the forever war. The president has chosen the former.
But Biden could have done so differently. A withdrawal in the winter, as opposed to in the summer, might possibly have led to a slower Taliban advance. The US, could have, and should have, evacuated more people, especially those who had assisted in the administration of the occupation – guides, interpreters, embassy staff, and intelligence operatives – more quickly.
But the US has been in Afghanistan for two decades, and had, by the end of 2020, spent $824.9bn on this misadventure. If, at the end of 20 years and more than $800bn, the nation you were supposed to help rebuild falls in a matter of weeks, the only conclusion is American intervention was a bloody failure. The idea that sinking more money and more lives would be upholding some American promise, or some American role in the world, is another fairy tale with a cruel and twisted ending.
Is this a stain on Biden’s presidency? Of course it is. Afghanistan saw a 47 per cent increase in civilian deaths in the first half of 2021. Afghan people are dying because the US is leaving. But does it matter? In the end, it’s likely that Biden’s Afghan withdrawal will merely be submerged into the deep history of American betrayal and error, quietly forgotten. The George W Bush presidency was blackened by the War on Terror. The Obama presidency was blemished by his frequent use of predator drone strikes, with predictable loss of civilian life, and the disastrous adventures in Libya in 2011. Yet both of them now bask in the post-presidential afterglow as the nation lapsed into the kind of historical amnesia that forgot and forgave their actions, an amnesia that defines all superpowers – even retreating ones.
[See also: Why American power failed in Afghanistan]