Washington: With the final stream of US cargo planes soaring over the peaks of the Hindu Kush, President Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to end America’s longest war, one it could not win.
But as the war ended with a chaotic, bloody evacuation that left stranded hundreds of US citizens and thousands of Afghans who had aided the American war effort, the president kept notably out of sight. He left it to a senior military commander and his secretary of state to tell Americans about the final moments of a conflict that ended in resounding American defeat.
Biden, for his part, issued a written statement praising US troops who oversaw the airlift of more than 120,000 Afghans, US citizens and allies for their “unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve.’’ He said he would have more to say on Tuesday.
“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,’’ Biden said in his statement.
The muted reaction was informed by a tough reality: The war may be over, but Biden’s Afghanistan problem is not.
The president still faces daunting challenges born of the hasty end of the war, including how to help extract as many as 200 Americans and thousands of Afghans left behind, the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees who were able to flee, and coming congressional scrutiny over how, despite increasingly fraught warnings, the administration was caught flat-footed by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
Through the withdrawal, Biden showed himself willing to endure what his advisers hope will be short-term pain for resisting bipartisan and international pressure to extend his August 31 deadline for ending the American military evacuation effort. For more than a decade, Biden has believed in the futility of the conflict and maintained that the routing of Afghanistan’s military by the Taliban was a delayed, if unwelcome, vindication.
Turning the page on Afghanistan is a crucial foreign policy objective for Biden, who repeatedly has made the case for redirecting American attention toward growing challenges posed by adversaries China and Russia — and for shifting America’s counterterrorism focus to areas with more potent threats.
But in his effort to end the war and reset US priorities, Biden may have also undercut a central premise of his 2020 White House campaign: a promise to usher in an era of greater empathy and collaboration with allies in America’s foreign policy after four years of President Donald Trump’s “America first’’ approach.
“For someone who made his name as an empathetic leader, he’s appeared ... as quite rational, even cold-hearted, in his pursuit of this goal’’ to end the war, said Jason Lyall, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Allies — including lawmakers from Britain, France, and Germany — chafed at Biden’s insistence on holding fast to the August 31 deadline as they struggled to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies. Armin Laschet, the leading conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor, called it the “biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.’’
At home, Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation into the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation, and even Democrats have backed inquiries into what went wrong in the fateful last months of the occupation.
And at the same time, the massive suicide bombing in the final days of the evacuation that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 180 Afghans is raising fresh concern about Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground for terrorists.
Biden blamed his predecessor, Trump, for tying his hands. He repeatedly reminded people that he had inherited an agreement the Republican administration made with the Taliban to withdraw US forces by May of this year. Reneging on the deal, Biden argued, would have put US troops — who before Thursday had gone since February 2020 without a combat fatality in the war — in the Taliban’s crosshairs once again.
The Democratic president’s advisers also complained that the now-ousted Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani was resistant to finding a political compromise with the Taliban and made strategic blunders by spreading largely feckless Afghan security forces too thinly.
Republicans — and even a few Democratic allies — have offered withering criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, an issue that the GOP is looking to weaponize against Biden.