Last month, a Gallup survey asked Americans to name the “most important problem” facing the nation. There was a long list of matters, all of them reflecting issues here at home. The word “Afghanistan” was nowhere to be found.
Now, all of a sudden, after a weekend of dramatic TV images from Kabul, there’s hysteria. Why are we leaving?!?! It’s important, vital, that we stay. We can’t lose Afghanistan! It’s all President Biden’s fault, the pundits cry.
Make no mistake: Joe Biden, who racked up countless miles over the years visiting Afghanistan, first as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president, wildly underestimated the capability of the Taliban, while wildly overestimating the ability of the Afghan army to stop them. The latter folded seemingly overnight, making a mockery of 20 years of American investment and training.
But beyond the weekend hysteria, here’s the broader, more long-term question: After 20 years and $2 trillion in U.S. spending, if the Afghan army won’t defend its own people, what is the United States to do? It was a cornerstone of American policy under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to train the Afghans. Historians will record that this was a failure two decades and three presidents in the making.
Could Biden have prevented the Taliban blitzkrieg? Perhaps, though massive air power and bombing that dwarfed World War II didn’t win in Vietnam; it’s merely speculative to think it would have in Afghanistan.
Also keep this in mind: Former President Donald Trump, who once invited Taliban leaders to meet at Camp David in 2019—three days before the anniversary of 9/11 (he then canceled it), said last year that he intended to pull all remaining troops out of Afghanistan by May 1. Trump, who said in his 2016 campaign that he wanted to end America’s “endless wars,” said a complete pullout from Afghanistan would be “a wonderful and positive thing to do.”
Apparently, it’s neither.
The threat has shifted
Now, as the anniversary of Sept. 11 looms, there’s talk about how we’re more vulnerable to a terror attack. Let’s step back from the weekend distress to note a few things. The last two decades have seen the loopholes that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to enter the United States plugged. The lack of coordination among the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies (yes, there are 18) is far tighter today; the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 (15 of them Saudis) would find it far more difficult to enter the country and operate in the open, as they did a generation ago.
Beyond this, we should remember that threats to our homeland have evolved dramatically since 2001. Data compiled by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, shows that homegrown terrorism has soared in recent years, fueled by far right, white-supremacist, anti-Muslim and antigovernment extremists.
FBI Director Christopher Wray (appointed by Trump) told Congress in March that “the problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.” He cited the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as one worrisome example. The goons of Charlottesville and Jan. 6 are the greater threat today.
Back to President Biden. He is taking his lumps and undoubtedly eager to turn the page on Afghanistan. One way of doing so would be to rack up some domestic wins. You can be sure that Republicans, sensing weakness, will press their advantage wherever they can. There’s still no infrastructure bill, for example. Meanwhile, the president’s $3.5 trillion domestic spending package, already facing stiff headwinds from both left and right, could face demands for various concessions. What might the president do to move things along?
Much of the weekend’s punditry has had a short-term focus. I think it’s a fool’s game to extrapolate events from this weekend—bad as it has been—into any larger observation.
Vietnam did not end Ford’s presidency
Keep in mind that in April 1975, when the communists were closing in on Saigon, President Gerald Ford refused to send troops back to save the day. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had officially ended two years earlier, and the troops had been withdrawn. Ford was criticized and took some lumps, but guess what? It may have been coincidental, but his Gallup approval rose 13 points over the next two months. Ford’s 1976 election bid failed, but Vietnam wasn’t the issue—his pardon of Richard Nixon and a rough economy were.
The television images from Kabul make me ill. God watch over the Afghan people, particularly women and girls who will suffer greatly under the Taliban’s stone age rule. Yet eight time zones away, Americans, whose interest in foreign affairs waxes and wanes, are looking inward at the many problems that we have here at home. Afghanistan hasn’t been a top issue for quite some time.
The issues that will decide Biden’s future—should he run for re-election at age 81, and I’m skeptical that he will—will be the pandemic and the economy. The book has closed on Afghanistan, likely not to be reopened again.