I’ve never seen a statement like this from a president before. Maybe Nixon said something similar in ordering withdrawal from Vietnam but I’m unfamiliar with it, if so. It’s a moment of shocking honesty, not quite an admission of defeat but an admission that victory is unachievable.
It’s strange to feel shocked by the head of state acknowledging something that everyone’s understood for many years, but that’s government for you. Rarely are truths this hard delivered forthrightly.
Not every moment today was as honest, as we’ll see below.
President Biden: "I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome. The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies created in response to the world as it was 20 years ago." pic.twitter.com/tWjqMsiWHw
— CSPAN (@cspan) July 8, 2021
Biden announced at the top of the presser that the mission in Afghanistan will end on August 31, a bit more than a month before it began 20 years ago. Although the dirty little secret at the Pentagon is that the mission is already effectively over. Hardly any American troops remain in the country as I write this:
“The withdrawal is over, for all intents and purposes,” said one of the officials with direct knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive planning. “It’s done.”
The U.S. currently has roughly 600 troops in Afghanistan, most of whom are Marine Corps and Army personnel providing security at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the person said. The rest of the 600 will be based at the Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, said another U.S. official with direct knowledge of the discussions. All of those troops are expected to remain after the pullout is officially complete, The Associated Press first reported last month…
The primary reason [Gen. Scott] Miller is staying is to boost the morale of the Afghan security forces, who have endured heightened attacks by the Taliban across the country over the past few months, the second U.S. official said. The attacks have further intensified in recent weeks, with the Taliban taking control of 10 percent of the country in the last six days alone, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which has closely tracked the conflict.
Miller’s expected to stay a few more weeks at least. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to evacuate sooner because the country is capitulating to the Taliban more rapidly than expected.
The most dishonest moment today came when Biden was asked whether he trusts the Taliban and answered no but that he trusts the Afghan military. That was a politic response, not wanting to declare the country doomed and demoralize the Afghan National Army more than the Taliban offensive already has. But one reason why it’s come to this is that the Afghans have never gelled into an effective cohesive fighting force dedicated to ensuring that Afghanistan remains run by the government built by the United States:
Q: "Do you trust the Taliban?"
President Biden: "Is that a serious question? No, I do not…It's a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war." pic.twitter.com/C6Z82NBwtL
— CSPAN (@cspan) July 8, 2021
The irony is that Biden diagnosed part of the problem in other remarks today. You can’t stand up a country as a unified nation-state when its tribes are forever fighting over control:
“The likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely” — Biden pic.twitter.com/ATJrYP1sQj
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 8, 2021
That would have been a useful perspective 20 years ago. He and Jen Psaki were also asked if there’ll be a “mission accomplished” moment for the Afghanistan war, which was less a question than a jab from the reporter given the subject of today’s press conference. Biden did the best he could in replying — we kicked out Al Qaeda and killed Bin Laden, right? That mission was accomplished, at least:
Reporter: "Mr. President, if this isn't a mission accomplished moment, what is it in your view?"
Biden: "No, there is no mission accomplished." pic.twitter.com/tfSwWaspAI
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) July 8, 2021
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he said elsewhere, again somewhat dishonestly. Right, crushing AQ and getting Osama were the immediate orders of business in 2001, but the task then shifted to making sure they didn’t return. The only way to do that, it was thought, was to … nation-build. Stand up a central government in Kabul, train a national army, and hope that enough money and patience would convince the Afghans to make their country inhospitable for jihadis after we left.
Probably not gonna work. We won’t have a “mission accomplished moment” but the Taliban might:
President Biden does not understand conditions are developing in Afghanistan for a reemergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS which will directly threaten the American homeland and our allies.
Get ready for major upheaval as this decision by President Biden is a disaster in the making.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 8, 2021
Don’t ask me what Graham’s alternative is. Permanent occupation, I assume.
Read Rich Lowry on the pitfalls of Biden’s withdrawal strategy. By pulling everyone out rapidly, including intelligence assets, it’s going to be hard to target new terrorist cells from abroad. The counterpoint is that some of our Afghan “allies” in the government and military are so treacherous that a more deliberate withdrawal might have led to U.S. troops being fragged by their Afghan comrades or ambushed based on information given to the Taliban by leaders eager to switch sides as the Americans departed. The only way to get everyone out safely was to run and hope for the best. So that’s what Biden did.