A Defense Of Joe Biden
The humanitarian disaster we are seeing at the Kabul airport is simply the last achievement of the Afghan government in fucking over its own people.
It is neither Biden nor America’s fault that Afghanistan refused to stand up for itself. We could prolong this revealed inevitable for 10 more years and Kabul would still likely surrender in 8 days in 2031.
There was virtually no fighting for Kabul. Afghanistan on paper has 300,000+ soldiers who ghosted their service and rampantly sold the war stuff we gave them on the black market. The Afghan army allegedly outnumbered the Taliban almost 3–1, and they had American-made, technologically sophisticated gear and humvees paid for with most of America’s past two decades’ worth of available infrastructure, healthcare, and green new deal money amounting to more cash than America spent on the Marshall Plan adjusted for inflation.
The Afghan military for years cited and even caused perennial maintenance problems of military equipment in order to delay war participation and continue fleecing the US, while Afghan kleptocrats laundered much of our aid money. The Afghans also had an air force with roughly 183 aircraft. It’s important to note here that the Taliban had no air force, though now it does. The Taliban will soon have everything we provided to build Afghanistan back better.
Despite 20 years of American assistance and guidance, the Afghan republic is hopelessly corrupt from the very top down to the lowest local bureaucrat and individual army soldier selling his bullets.
So ultimately Biden had it exactly right: it is not fair for America to sacrifice for a country that won’t sacrifice for itself. A lot of Afghans’ lives will soon be ruined, it’s terrible, but we spent 20 years going into debt to buy them a federal democratic republic, a military employing more personnel than most of our NATO allies, and, most importantly, more than enough time to build a free society. Afghans should reserve all blame for their awful, corrupt government which has so spectacularly failed them.
So don’t listen to the vast majority of media pundits waxing poetically on how this is Biden’s fault. Journalists, columnists, and TV opinionators across the political spectrum are piling on Biden to showcase either their “we’re tough on both sides” mantra on the left, or their mindless partisan hypocrisy on the right. The media’s collective hivemind all Biden-blaming for clickbait sensationalism is the same hivemind sensationalism that turned Afghanistan into a forever war, swept us into Iraq, and passively parroted for years the military and political talking points and spin about how we’re “making progress,” and “the Afghans are standing up,” and “two more years will give us the leverage we need to bring the Taliban to the table,” and “one more surge will win the war.”
Of course, the absolute worst takes have come from conservative media, with the pavlovian, spineless, unexamined rhetoric we’ve come to expect. After four years of celebrating Trump’s self-congratulating about winding down the troop presence and his decision to withdraw completely by May 1st (after his presidency ended), many conservative pundits savaged Biden when that deadline came for prolonging the withdrawal for two months to more responsibly exit, and sarcastically opined that Biden would keep the Afghan forever war going at least another four years. Now conservative media organizations are drooling all over themselves to bruise the Biden presidency with round-the-clock accusations of Saigon 2.0, without any reference to the fact that Republicans were the architects, builders, and cheerleaders of this 20-year expeditionary, nation-building odyssey throughout the Middle East, as well as its close.
Convenient for the media’s Afghani-palooza of ratings, page views, and advertising profits, they largely seem to have forgotten that Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo signed the sweetheart deals that legitimized the Taliban, freed 5,000 Taliban prisoners to rejoin the fight, and earned much deserved criticism for not including the Afghan government in their Taliban negotiations. Trump characteristically applauded himself for these Taliban deals, though the Republican National Committee quickly scrubbed its website of such praise this week, and it’s one more example that Donald Trump is, always has been, and always will be a terrible, awful, preposterously bad dealmaker.
Adding insult to international injury, Trump gleefully recounted to a recent rally crowd how he designed the withdrawal deal so that Biden would be powerless to stop it, and also reiterated in an official Former Guy statement that getting out of Afghanistan was a “wonderful and positive thing to do” we should have done a long, long time ago. Biden’s hands were tied, and Trump’s very recent bloviating retroactively begs for the blame, particularly since the last four years of Afghan assistance and military training was overseen by Mr. “I take no responsibility.”
The media can pedantically point out in bad faith that Biden said the buck stopped with him, but professional media gotcha cops can understand the presidential buck obviously implied the Afghan army wouldn’t outright refuse to fight, and that top Afghan officials wouldn’t flee the country immediately. Should Biden grab a rifle and go fight the Taliban himself? Are any of his critics in the media doing anything to fight the Taliban? Of course there is nothing anyone can do. Not even the US military. The Afghan republic gave up, failed its long-suffering citizens, and above all failed its 66,000+ security forces who died trying to make something of Afghanistan.
The Taliban won. They outlasted us. Ultimately it’s a reasonable thing to happen. It’s their country, and endless war has been their normal, every day life for decades. We even directly subsidized this endless warring 40 years ago. From the invasion onward, we should have known they knew all they had to do was wait. And they waited, and now we’re leaving, and unfortunately we have little say anymore on the matter of what happens to the Afghan people beyond taking as many refugees as we can as fast as possible, which is the one good faith criticism of the Biden Administration available, though only if you recall that Trump had no plan for refugees whatsoever, and that Stephen Miller helped him tear up all the visa and immigration policies that would have expedited the current Afghan refugee processes. The scenes and images of crowds at the airport, women back in burqas, and renewed Taliban oppression are heartrending, but that’s what losing a war looks like.
This chaos is not thanks to Biden. Afghan leaders begged America to not evacuate earlier than we did in order to prevent a complete collapse of confidence in their government, and the Biden Administration acquiesced. Unfortunately, Afghan officials really only wanted to guarantee that they themselves could be the first out the door. Don’t forget that President Ghani, who has been promising Biden that the Afghan army would fight, was among the first to flee. The humanitarian disaster we are seeing at the Kabul airport is simply the last achievement of the Afghan government in fucking over its own people.
America heroically gave the Afghan government 20 years of economic growth, a massive military jobs program, modern infrastructure installations, urban security and relative freedom, but the Afghan government squandered the gift and made the crisis the world is watching inevitable.
And, even worse for America, the US soiled many of our values and ideals along the way. We let the hopeful ends of a democratic and stable Afghanistan justify the means of shrugging off the kleptocracy of Hamid Karzai’s enduring crony capitalism, the massive opium drug trade, and the Afghan military’s rampant use of little boys as sex slaves.
So now, finally, the Afghan War is over. No one can say we didn’t try, but we ultimately failed to make a majority of Afghan society care about being a nation-state, having democracy, serving and protecting its citizens, or even sustaining its governmental existence.
The Afghan War will forever be a historical scar in American history, a cornucopia of bipartisan mistakes, and a textbook example of nation-building hubris, but, truly of all the bad decisions available, the least bad decision for Biden to make was to follow through on leaving. Obama, Trump, and Biden all campaigned on ending the war, and finally American voters’ will has been honored.
At the very least, America can take comfort and solace in finally having a president in Biden who is not lying to us or faking optimism like every cheerleader for the Afghan War has been for two decades, and is actually being real with us. “The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said with refreshing honesty, adding later “I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States.”
So rest in peace America’s War in Afghanistan (2001–2021). And let’s carve on the war’s tombstone Biden’s history-making words:
“It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.”
[Originally published on my Substack newsletter, The Halfway Café. Sign up for my weekly newsletters on politics and culture.]