AMAC Exclusive By: Daniel Roman
At 11 a.m. Eastern Time, Sunday, August 15, 2021, John Kirby, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs took to a podium to announce that “Kabul is not, right now, in an imminent threat environment.” The exact timing of this statement is important, both because at the moment he made it, Taliban fighters were already driving through the streets of Kabul – images which found their way into the replies to Kirby’s tweet – and because by the time this article is published, Kabul in all probability, will no longer be in an imminent threat environment. As of 5PM on August 15, a few hours after Kirby’s statement, Taliban fighters were already gleefully sharing images of themselves within the Afghan Presidential palace.
Secretary of State Blinken at least admitted that the speed of the Taliban advance “surprised” the administration. But he then proceeded to deny the administration had any responsibility for the disaster—not for the decision the leave Afghanistan, which he blamed on the preceding Administration, not for the bungled way in which the withdrawal was handled, and not for the failure to evacuate more than 10% of the 19,000 Afghans granted special visas for assisting US forces.
In fact, Blinken repeated a familiar line. The Afghan withdrawal was a decision of the previous administration, and that the way the withdrawal occurred was a consequence of the decision of the Trump Administration to sign a deal with the Taliban. Had the Biden Administration not withdrawn on schedule, the Taliban might have resumed the war. (Exactly what the Taliban been doing the last few weeks if not war may be a question beyond Blinken or Kirby’s competences, though to be fair, a war usually is less one-sided than what seems to have been going on.)
It is worth taking on Blinken’s accusations (or justifications?) directly because they appear to be a narrative that will become the administration’s defense of the greatest military and logistical fiasco in US history. Though the administration is right when they say Kabul is not Saigon (though Blinken perhaps would have been better advised to not have repeated that line 11 times in 7 minutes during a Sunday interview), the fact is the South Vietnamese army put up far more of a fight, and the evacuation was, at least in contrast, a well-executed operation involving airlifts to US Navy ships off the coast.
First there is the issue of withdrawal. It is true that Donald Trump ran on promising a withdrawal and worked to carry it out. But a withdrawal did not have to end with a collapse of the Afghan government, and a Taliban takeover did not have to involve a total failure to properly evacuate Americans or allies. Donald Trump made clear what his terms for withdrawal were, and most importantly made them clear to the Taliban. Throughout 2020 the Taliban did not take a single city, and Donald Trump made clear where his redlines were.
Furthermore, the entire basis of any cease-fire or peace agreement is that war will be resumed if one side violates its terms. The attitude Blinken revealed, ie. fear that if the US did not withdraw ahead of the deadline the Taliban would resume the war, indicated that the Taliban did not need the deal, or any deal with the United States to get a US withdrawal. All they had to do was threaten to advance, or as things turned out, actually advance. By justifying the timeline for withdrawal not on the basis of the deal, but on the basis of fear of the Taliban, Blinken and Biden informed the Taliban that the US feared them, and therefore all but told them they were under no obligation to keep the deal or any terms within it. The administration failed the test of negotiation 101.
This is in marked contrast to the Trump Administration, which made clear that the US did not fear inflicting massive damage on the Taliban if the Taliban acted in a way which changed the cost-benefit-analysis. Trump was withdrawing not because he feared the Taliban, but because he had made a promise to the American people and believed it was in America’s interests to leave Afghanistan. Because Trump justified the withdrawal on the basis of America’s interests, it was clear to the Taliban that if they acted in a way which made a continued US presence in Afghanistan more beneficial to US interests than a withdrawal in the eyes of Donald Trump, the US would not leave. Hence, they had every incentive to behave in a way which convinced the previous administration that a withdrawal was compatible with US interests.
What changed under Biden was that the US stopped negotiating. A negotiation involves asking for things in exchange for concessions. But the Taliban could have been forgiven if they had no idea what the Biden administration wanted from them. By Blinken’s own testimony on August 15th, the US asked for nothing from the Taliban. So the Taliban did not even know how they could behave in a manner which would make the US see a withdrawal as in American interests even if they wanted.
That is a critical concession. It is likely the Taliban wanted the US out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and if the US had asked for the right to not just withdraw unmolested, but also to evacuate 70-100,000 Afghans who had worked with US forces, the Taliban would have agreed. It is not as if the Taliban would have been harmed from doing so. It would have allowed them to take power in a transitional government as they are now, but also it would have avoided opening their rule with bloodshed.
Missed by the Biden Administration officials, so obsessed with denying the reality of their situation that they refused to act to mitigate it, was that the Afghans who worked with America pose a problem for the Taliban. Left alive and remaining in Afghanistan, they have military training and close links which could make them the core of any future resistance. If they are slaughtered, however, the Taliban will open their rule in front of the world media with the mass murder of Afghans who are the focus of international attention. Allowing them to leave for the West is actually the most convenient option for the Taliban – if only the Biden administration could have coordinated a successful evacuation effort.
Negotiations are not about merely talking, which is what it appears is all that occurred in Doha between the Taliban and United States under the Biden administration. They involve looking at the reality of the situation and coming to arrangements which would be beneficial to both sides. Biden is correct that a deal with the Taliban probably could not have saved the Afghan government. That is because the Afghan government would have needed to be able to save itself. If the US was not going to save it, and it could not save itself, then of course the Taliban were not going to concede power. But the Afghan government was not a party to the talks by the choice of the Biden administration. The United States and Taliban could have come to a mutually agreeable deal to allow for an organized US withdrawal, permit the safe emigration of Pro-Western Afghans, and allow the Taliban to avoid a bloodbath at the start of their rule. Biden offered everything and asked for nothing, not even the things the Taliban wanted to give him.
Here lies the true crime of the Biden Afghanistan policy. If defeat truly was inevitable and a Taliban takeover was unstoppable, then the correct course was not to bury one’s head in the sand but to mitigate the harms as best as possible. But the Biden administration seemed determined to deny reality as long as possible. At a July 8th Press Conference Biden insisted that “the Taliban is not the South — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
The Biden Administration was so scared of being blamed for a collapse they believed was inevitable that acknowledging it publicly – either by planning for it, actually evacuating Afghans, or negotiation with the Taliban on the basis of a takeover, was unthinkable. As a result, the administration did not evacuate, did not negotiate with the Taliban even on things the Taliban would have wanted to concede, and lied to both the Afghans and American people. When the Afghans saw they had been lied to, they defected, with the Afghan Army melting away. We have yet to see how the American people will feel about an administration which lied to them.
This lying – to the world, to the American people, even to themselves, stands as an appalling act of moral cowardice. To be defeated in Afghanistan is a tragedy, and one which has multiple authors, not least Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, whose daughter is currently busy serving as Democratic window dressing on the January 6th commission. But the catastrophe which accompanied this withdrawal is entirely on Biden and his team and no one else. They will have the lives of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands on their hands. It was not inevitable. It would not even have cost them or the United States anything of substance. The Taliban might well have given them our Afghan allies and an orderly withdrawal if they had but asked. All they had was their ego and image, and they traded maintaining both for an extra few weeks for countless lives. They should hang their heads in shame.
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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