AMAC Exclusive By: Daniel Roman
“A historic, epic failure of leadership, of planning and execution.” That is how Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York described the withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday. Senator Tom Cotton echoed that President Joe Biden appeared “dangerously disconnected from reality,” in a speech Monday as well, while Senators Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney, no friends of former President Trump, said Biden’s pullout showed “weakness and betrayal,” with Romney noting, “The president’s failure to acknowledge his disastrous withdrawal provides no comfort to Americans or our Afghan partners whose lives hang in the balance.”
They are correct. And the Biden administration’s efforts to shift the discussion to one about whether the US should or should not have remained in Afghanistan indefinitely, as Biden attempted to do when he lamely claimed the “buck stops here,” were little more than gaslighting. Romney, hardly a hardliner, expressed the view of many when he took to Twitter to remark “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”
Biden and Democrats want to portray the situation in Afghanistan as a binary choice between remaining or leaving. Without that binary choice, Biden’s withdrawal becomes indefensible. Even worse, the mistakes are not in the past. They are still ongoing.
The disastrous nature of the withdrawal is an indictment not of the United States, its military, or its system of government, but of those charged with overseeing those things. The Biden administration appears to be unable to ensure a coordinated action in real time between the State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council, much less engage in any long-term planning. With such abysmal decision-making, it is unclear how better intelligence would have helped, as some Democrats claim it would have. And that is to say nothing of the repeated warnings of Republican Senators and Congressman about the dangers of a precipitous withdraw.
Biden has sought to dodge responsibility. Even as he claimed the “buck stopped with him” on Monday, he tried to change the issue back to one of “policy”. But what happened was never about whether to withdraw from Afghanistan. It was the failure, once that decision was made, to adopt any policy about how to do so. The withdrawal was neither coordinated with the Afghan government forces so as to allow them to resist, or with the Taliban in a way so as to extract maximum concessions for their takeover. Even as Taliban forces were sharing selfies from the Presidential palace, different US officials were issuing contradictory statements. Americans in Kabul were told simultaneously to hunker in place and not come to the airport, and then to head there as quickly as possible.
Worse, the Biden administration still has no coherent strategy for the rest of the withdrawal. Or rather they have two strategies, either of which might work, but which are also mutually in tension with one another, and both are being pursued simultaneously by different elements of the administration. For example, the Treasury Department was running plans to seize Afghanistan’s gold reserves, while the US Central Command was in talks with the Taliban to secure the airport in Doha, all as media reports indicated that more US troops were simultaneously being sent and leaving. Any of these policies may have had merit. Together, they were incoherent and self-defeating. They left Afghans trapped on the runway of Kabul airport to fall to their deaths from aircraft, and as we speak they are sending thousands of American troops into that very same airport where they will very possibly become hostages to the Taliban.
To that end, there appear to be competing policies at Central Command and Washington regarding defending Kabul Airport. The head of Central Command evidently concluded that the Taliban, who may have changed not at all, but have learned much about PR, had a vested interest in expelling all foreigners from Afghanistan and therefore in the US taking as many as possible out. As such, he evidently concluded that the best way to secure the airport was to ask the Taliban to allow the US to maintain control of it for two weeks. This was the agreement reached early on Monday morning in Doha.
Regardless of whether one thinks the Taliban trustworthy, there is reason to believe they could, if they wanted, halt the evacuation. Taliban fighters are currently occupying half of Hamid Karzai airport and have been filmed in the parking lot. They have stinger missiles. If they wished to shoot down the aircraft or hit the runways with mortars, they likely could. The simple fact that they have not indicates they do not wish to.
Nonetheless, within hours, Washington was striking a different tune, with Biden officials announcing that additional US troops were on the way to “secure” the airport, bringing the total US strength to 6,000. Leaving aside that 2,500 US soldiers seemed sufficient to hold off the Taliban in the entire country a few months ago, it is unclear what the intention is to do with these soldiers once they arrive. They could potentially drive the Taliban back, but only at risk of combat which would badly damage the airport, and driving them back from missile and mortar range would require retaking large segments of Kabul. Then those troops would still have to be withdrawn themselves. Without a clear mission, they are merely a provocation.
The US is therefore following two mutually contradictory policies. A policy of negotiation may work or it may not, but it is less likely to work if paired with sending additional US forces and taking the gold. Sending additional forces may work if there is a clear military plan to use them, but if the plan is simply to have them there as a deterrent, they increase the risks of the negotiations breaking down without actually doing anything to secure the airport. Not to mention increasing the potential losses if things go badly.
All of this implies no one is in charge. Which prompts the question: who is? Since the position was created, the office of the National Security Advisor has been charged with coordinating interagency cooperation on matters of foreign policy and national security. At some points the role has transcended that job into a policy position. Henry Kissinger famously used it in such a way, and Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Bolton attempted the same feat with less skill, resulting in creating chaos rather than order. But Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, seems to aspire to neither. A political hack with extensive Clinton associations, he has no history of any ideas of his own. Which is fine, and perhaps a good thing. The problem is, he also has no history of executive management experience. That now shows. Rather than taking control, calling in Treasury, State, Defense, and stakeholders and demanding everyone explain what they are doing, he seems to have vanished to the talk shows.
Perhaps a strong Secretary of State could step in, but Antony Blinken is about as weak as any Secretary can be. Mike Pompeo and John Kerry were former Senators, as was Hillary Clinton. Colin Powell was a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Condoleezza Rice had been National Security Advisor. Even Rex Tillerson, for all his ineffectiveness in office, had come from Exxon Mobil, where he had been CEO and had at least some organizational experience. Blinken comes off as the sort of person who would be Under Secretary of State for Policy, not the Secretary himself. With no personal political base, he has no power to order around the political appointees who serve under him, much less those in other agencies and the White House that he would need in order to accomplish anything. He too has vanished.
That leaves the White House, where Biden’s belated return showed some action on the part of Chief of Staff Ron Klain. Klain has some experience as Chief of Staff to two Vice Presidents, Al Gore and Joe Biden, but his one executive role, that of heading Al Gore’s recount effort in Florida, saw him outmaneuvered by the Bush forces almost as badly as Biden has now been outmaneuvered by the Taliban. Klain had no coherent strategy other than requesting as many recounts as possible where he thought he would find votes, with the result being that he lost the public battle by giving the impression he was cherry picking jurisdictions, and eventually ran out of time. There are echoes of Gore’s Florida recount strategy in the fragmented approach to Afghanistan, where each short-term tactical move is hailed as genius with no consideration of whether it advances any sort of wider strategic objective.
Biden is correct that the buck stops with him. Part of being an effective leader is installing effective people in positions of importance. Biden’s team has thus far shown no management or coordination skills, much to the horror of the Afghan people and the rest of the free world. For someone who ran on “competence” and putting “adults” in charge, his administration has been remarkably haphazard and juvenile.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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