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2 September 2021

Why Joe Biden got everything wrong in Afghanistan

The Biden administration’s view of the world as a diplomatic conversation was disconnected from reality.

By Bruno Maçães

It is just under two weeks since the Taliban entered Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul and US troops withdrew to begin the ongoing evacuation at the airport. The city has since devolved into nightmare, leaving me asking what exactly I expected would happen? And how did those on the ground imagine the US would act? 

I left Kabul just before its fall, and as I have written, no one I spoke to at the time had any illusions that the Taliban would take over. There was, however, a sense that the city might not fall easily. I remember listening with some concern as a respected Afghan elder – a relative of the now absconded president, Ashraf Ghani – explained that the Taliban would not stop until they had entered Bagram airfield, formerly the largest US military base in the country, and started raining rockets on central Kabul. As it happened, the insurgent forces walked right into the presidential palace, known as the Arg or citadel, and right up to Ghani’s empty desk. 

Kabul is a very large city and one that seemed, sociologically, not so favourable to the Taliban. Hidden Taliban cells had spread all over Kabul and were ready to be activated, but they were hidden for a reason: Kabul would not welcome the white Taliban flag. There was also the government and its forces, which although hollow and demoralised, might still be expected to offer some resistance.

The US had been trying to position itself as the diplomatic fulcrum. When the time was ripe, it could step in to prevent a bloody battle for Kabul. At that point, not only would it be capable of securing a modicum of civil peace, it would be in a privileged position to extract from the two sides a number of concessions. The puppet master rather than the occupier – the latter, a role now decried by Washington. Presumably, the evacuation would have started then, with America in the driving seat and a reduced need to extract Afghans associated with the old regime, since they would be part of the new regime as well. Everything might then have proceeded in an orderly manner. The collapse of the Afghan government before the Americans left was definitely not in the plan.

I heard some theories along these lines in Kabul and found them unconvincing, but not entirely absurd. This was the theory of the “arrangement”. An Afghan businessman in the electricity sector defended it to me in great detail and with great conviction, but he must have lost that conviction at some point because, before an arrangement had been reached, he was on one of the last commercial flights out of the capital.

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If this reading is correct, then it seems to me that the problem was to place diplomacy at the centre. There is no military solution, as they say in diplomacy circles. Except that often – perhaps always – there is, and even peaceful societies live off some historical military solution. 

Washington placed its faith in diplomacy when there was no diplomatic process to speak of. The Biden administration is especially to blame because it cannot help but see the world as a diplomatic conversation – a vision profoundly disconnected from reality. This is an administration that came of age in the think tank world, and gets its life energy from the innocuous idealism of the millennial left.

[see also: Last of the forever wars: Afghanistan and the limits of liberal intervention]

The incompetence was staggering. Bagram was closed, thus eliminating every possibility of an orderly evacuation. Intelligence assessments were delusional, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby reminiscent of Baghdad Bob. The evacuation was left to the last day. Visas were not processed or the right people identified. The airport was not prepared. There was no baby food, water or sanitary facilities. Imagine Henry Kissinger starting the Saigon evacuation after the city had fallen rather than two weeks before, and after having sent the aircraft carriers home. I have never seen such a monumental display of incompetence by a Western democracy as the American evacuation from Afghanistan.

At the root of it all lies a warped vision of global relations. The whole strategy was an exercise in virtual politics. First, the creation of a virtual Afghan government. It is not surprising that the Taliban moved with such confidence and speed when they were the ones best placed to understand they were not fighting a real army or a real state, but rather a fiction or a ghost projected from Washington on to the screen of Afghanistan. 

It is painful to watch President Biden argue that no one could predict the “troops we trained would so quickly fall apart”. Those who provided the training should probably have some blame in the outcome, but Washington was no longer living in the real world and took its own manufactured fictions seriously. The next stage was to create the fiction of a political process where the US could play the role of mediator and kingmaker.

There were fatal errors at the beginning of the Afghanistan War and there was gross incompetence at the end, but the last two years should not be spared either. In Doha at the beginning of 2020, the US made a formal commitment to make its withdrawal conditional on an inclusive political process. That condition was quickly abandoned, one more element in the collapsing fiction. We are not talking about a moral commandment in the world court of history. We are talking about a piece of paper signed little over a year ago.

Even days before the fall of Kabul, the understanding among European ambassadors in the city was that Washington would honour its commitment to provide security for the embassies in the green zone with a residual military force. That commitment had been formally made and people took it seriously. But it too was dropped, and just as suddenly.

By ignoring that Afghanistan was still a war, the US was slowly dragged along. It now finds itself not in the position of mediator but, more dramatically, a losing power. 

[See also: Who are IS-K and what do they want?]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future