US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the rounds on television on Sunday and Monday to defend the end of Washington’s military commitment to Afghanistan and downplay the country’s humiliating conquest by the Taliban, the Islamist group overthrown by the US two decades ago.
It was a master class in spin, the American politician’s way of making a disaster look good. Or at least find a way to blame someone else.
Blinken made three disjointed points meant to convince his home audience of the rightfulness of the military withdrawal. The first was that a decade ago, the death of Osama bin Laden at American hands was the successful realization of US goals in Afghanistan.
Second, the Afghans should be able to take care of themselves and it’s not in the American national interest to prop them up.
And third, President Joe Biden inherited the pull-out decision from his predecessor, Donald Trump, so what else was he to do?
These justifications will certainly make no difference to Afghans who face the prospect of rule under the Taliban’s fanatical interpretation of Islamic law. But for Blinken, the thing is to shield Biden from negative political fallout – especially if the Taliban ends up hosting terrorists again.
Biden’s own top military staff members had already predicted it will happen.
At a US senate hearing on July 18, both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said the terror groups had a “medium” chance of remerging within two years following a US withdrawal. Then Milley ominously added: “And I think that if certain other things happen – if there was a collapse of the government or the dissolution of the Afghan security forces – that risk would obviously increase.”
Collapse and dissolution came fast and furious on Sunday. Thousands of Afghans fled the capital, the country’s president snuck into exile and turbaned Taliban fighters roamed the presidential palace.
Biden championed a pullout
Hence the need to blame Donald Trump, who did indeed pledge to pull out the troops by May 1. Biden has had no problem overturning other Trump policies, but not this one.
That’s because Biden championed a pullout long before Trump arrived on the political scene. As far back as 2009, when he was vice-president under Barack Obama, Biden zealously promoted leaving Afghanistan. His reasoning was similar then as now: the US had already done its best to build up Afghan forces, so let’s move on.
In 2011, with bin Laden dead, Biden again argued that the mission should be truncated. Obama agreed and promised a full pullout by 2014.
However, the plan was waylaid by the appearance of the Islamic State terror organization in Afghanistan. Obama canceled his pledge, though by the time he left office, US troop strength had shrunk from 100,000 to only 5,800. Blinken knows all this – he was Biden’s foreign policy advisor at the time – but it’s best not to acknowledge it, in case things go wrong.
And they did.
Blinken faced another dilemma: how to explain the evident failure to prepare for the disorder. With the live television spectacle of the quick Taliban takeover, the president quickly faced charges of incompetence. Neither he nor his intelligence agents seemed aware of the Taliban’s capabilities.
In early July, Biden bristled at predictions he was inviting the kind of tragic-comic climax that characterized the end of the Vietnam war – an event immortalized by the sight of helicopters picking US personnel off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon and flying them away.
“There’s going to be no circumstances where you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of a US Embassy in Afghanistan,” Biden told reporters on July 8. “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Last week, US intelligence officials told reporters it would take at least a month and likely up to 90 days before the Taliban could take Kabul.
“This is not Saigon,” Blinken insisted.
Getting things wrong
Biden is in plenty of company when it comes it getting things wrong in the Middle East. Since the beginning of this century, grotesque errors made by US presidents make up a blooper reel of errors.
In 2011, the Obama administration celebrated the overthrow of Libya’s dictator Moammar Ghaddafi. US Admiral James G Stavridis, who oversaw US-led NATO military intervention, called it a “model” and “tremendous success story” for the alliance. Libya is still fighting a civil war.
Of course, there was the notorious declaration of “mission accomplished” by George Bush in 2003, only three months after the American-led invasion of Iraq. The US fought various uprisings in the country until 2011 and returned under Obama in 2014 to help defeat the Islamic State, a chore he passed on to Trump.
And then there was Obama’s “red line” threat in 2012 to attack Syrian forces for their use of chemical weapons. Backing off that threat opened the way to unfettered Russian intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Biden’s pullout and its messy aftermath have already entered this pantheon of missteps. He just doesn’t want to own it – the very essence of spin.