I keep thinking of the people falling from the sky. The images are seared into my mind: Our Afghan allies, the people we were callously leaving to their fates after 20 years, clinging to an American plane taking off from Kabul Airport, only to drop to their deaths moments later. Afterwards, Joe Biden had the gall to declare “with all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America”.
A year on, how should we evaluate Biden’s declaration? Well, the Taliban has reinstalled a tyrannical theocratic government under which the precious freedoms gained by Afghan women over the past 20 years have been completely reversed. If the “best decision for America” involves trampling liberty and solidarity underfoot, then I don’t want to imagine what the worst decision would look like.
More tangibly, we were told that the Taliban would no longer harbour terrorists — Biden promised in his withdrawal speech “to make sure that Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland”. And yet, as Barbara Elias warned last year, this is not a promise the president had the power to keep. Links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda were and are too deep and strong to be severed. Elias cited worrying intelligence assessments that al-Qaeda could become a real threat to the US again as soon as 2023.
Her warning was vindicated two weeks ago, when Biden announced the successful killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul in an apartment rented by an aide of Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. Haqqani, in turn, is the leader of the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot that the Wall Street Journal has called the group’s “most radical and violent branch”. The Taliban claimed they were unaware of Zawahiri’s presence in the heart of their capital, a statement that knowledgeable observers have rightly called out for its sheer effrontery.
No doubt the truth about the current relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda will come out in due course. But the reasonable conclusion is that the two groups are still comfortably in bed with one another, and that al-Qaeda is once more using Afghanistan as a staging ground for its nefarious activities. We should welcome the killing of al-Zawahiri, of course, but his being found in Kabul gives the lie to Biden’s justification for the Afghanistan withdrawal.
In that withdrawal speech, Biden argued that “the real choice” was “between leaving or escalating”. This was a false dichotomy. America could have just carried on. Yes, perhaps Afghanistan was a very long way from becoming a proper democracy, but it would have been relatively inexpensive to keep a small force of a few thousand stationed there for a few more years, a fraction of the 100,000 troops stationed there in 2010–11. Even before the 2020 peace deal, US casualties in Afghanistan had been extremely low for years, with fatalities averaging in the low double digits since 2015. A small US force would have been more than enough to keep the Taliban out of total power.
From today’s perspective, however, it is no longer possible to view Biden’s withdrawal and the chaos that has ensued as a strategic error, however grave. You come back from errors, you reset and correct course. Instead, I have come to see the Afghanistan debacle as something more alarming: the result of a complete lack of strategy, or even the basic contours of a plan. What we have seen over the past year has been nothing other than chaos disguised as policymaking.
At home, for instance, Biden took office promising to reunite a polarised nation. That went out the window last Monday, when Donald Trump’s residence was raided by the FBI less than 100 days from the midterms elections — allegedly over violations of an obscure record-keeping statute. Since then, prominent Republicans have accused the administration of parallel systems of justice, drawing comparisons with Third World countries. Who can blame them? The FBI barely made a case of Hilary Clinton’s lost cache of emails and an at-home secret server, and while federal prosecutors are investigating Hunter Biden for potential tax fraud (to say nothing of the shenanigans documented on Hunter’s infamous laptop), no one has yet seen fit to raid the First Son’s home.
Even more remarkable than the raid itself are the reports that Biden was not aware of it before it happened. Sending FBI agents to occupy the home of a former president — and Biden’s potential opponent in 2024 — is an unprecedented step. It will be politically explosive even if the bureau turns up evidence of wrongdoing, which is no guarantee given that the press, the Democratic Party, and various agencies of the US security state have investigated Trump’s alleged criminality again and again to little avail. That such a potentially destabilising step could be taken without Biden’s knowledge is almost literally unbelievable. If true, it would mean that the president is barely in charge of his own government.
This absence of a plan is also evident in Biden’s handling of Ukraine and Taiwan. Although the president deserves credit for the massive aid he has sent to Ukraine, he has repeatedly risked escalating the conflict with off-the-cuff remarks that contradict official US policy. During a visit to Poland in March, he seemed to call for regime change in Russia, inadvertently threatened to use chemical weapons, and appeared to tell American troops that they would soon be fighting in Ukraine. These comments were later clarified or “walked back” by Biden’s gaggle of minders, raising questions about whether Biden himself is the one making the decisions.
Then there was Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan. When reports of the trip began to circulate, so too did the speculations about why she was going at such an awful time. Did Biden approve of Pelosi’s trip, or was she going against his wishes? The latest reporting suggests it was the latter. If she had been backed by Biden, then, as Thomas Friedman put it, Biden would have been signing off on “something that is utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible”. Instead, it seems that Biden was simply unable to stop Pelosi from doing whatever she wanted.
What explains this potentially tragic comedy of errors? Perhaps, in part, it is a result of the Democrats’ desperate need to distinguish themselves from Trump. If Trump was unwilling to risk war over Taiwan, then Team Biden must be ready to go there. But wanting to come across as different is hardly a vision.
Trump’s personality made him unfit for office, and the events of January 6 have left a stain on America. But the Trump administration had some real foreign policy achievements under its belt, not least the breakthrough Abraham Accords. When Trump brags that neither the war in Ukraine nor the crisis over Taiwan would have happened if he had been re-elected, he is credible. For all his colourful personality, there really was a Trump domestic policy vision and a foreign policy doctrine.
The same cannot be said of his successor. A year on from the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden’s doctrine remains nebulous and disjointed, to the extent it doesn’t appear to exist at all. More and more, the Afghanistan disaster epitomises his entire administration — chaotic, ill-planned, and papered over with high-flown rhetoric that has little to do with the reality on the ground.
Editor’s note: This piece was written before Salman Rushdie was attacked on Friday — a subject which Ayaan will be addressing in her next column.