When US soldiers die during a botched military mission, calls for accountability usually ring out among politicians and the public.
In the wake of the deaths of 13 American soldiers in a terrorist bombing at Kabul airport, US President Joe Biden is facing such loud and intense criticism. Some political opponents even demand he either resign or be removed from office.
Neither will happen. He has perfunctorily defended himself by taking responsibility for “all that’s happened of late,” but focused blame on others, including the Afghans themselves and his predecessor, Donald Trump.
It is a risky defense. The Kabul carnage was exceptional – more than 130 Afghan would-be refugees were also blown up – but also followed upon an ill-planned and disorderly evacuation of diplomats, American citizens and Afghan civilians.
But Biden is undoubtedly familiar with a well-worn menu of political survival tactics following such catastrophes. In his long Washington career – it spans almost a half-century – he has witnessed several successful campaigns to fight off critiques of military debacles.
He need only to follow scripts laid out by three of his predecessors – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
In the past half half-century, each oversaw spectacular mishaps. All the events had one thing in common: they occurred during missions originally designed to accomplish one thing, but then turned to some other, more ambitious undertaking.
The habit became known as “mission creep.”
In 1983, Reagan launched what he called a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, meant at first to escort the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country after Israel’s 1982 invasion. He pulled the troops out in the fall of 1983, but returned 800 Marines quickly as the Lebanese civil war, already seven years old, reignited.
Reagan’s mission creep
Reagan called the force peacekeepers and pledged that “the American force will not engage in combat.”
But peacekeeping works best when everyone in a conflict agrees to it. But all of Beirut’s civil war factions didn’t. Some considered the foreign troops as allies of Israel and their militias clashed with and sniped at US troops and other peacekeeping forces involved.
US military rules of engagement limited the US response. American soldiers were told to keep no bullets in the chamber of their rifles.
On October 23, a Shiite suicide bomber, probably trained by Iran, drove a truck filled with explosives into the Marine barracks. It was surrounded only by chain link fencing. None of the sentinels on guard got a shot off as the truck approached the building. The blast killed 241 servicemen.
US public and political outrage ran high. After promising to keep his forces in Beirut, Reagan withdrew them less than four months later. He then took personal responsibility. The maneuver had the effect of shielding subordinates, and especially field commanders, from having to resign or even face military courts-martial.
“If there is to be blame,” Reagan said, ”It properly rests here in this office and with this president. I accept responsibility for the bad as well as the good.”
He acknowledged that commanders had underestimated the danger, but said they ”have already suffered quite enough.”
Clinton’s Somalia disaster
In 1993, Clinton deftly responded to a smaller scale but nonetheless damning disaster in Somalia. It also involved mission creep.
He had decided to supplement a United Nations famine relief operation into a project to sideline warlords fighting for power. He directed military commanders and diplomats to be “actively involved in nation-building, and in supporting the establishment of structures restoring essential public services based upon legitimately vested authorities.”
One powerful warlord, Muhammed Farah Aidid, understood that this would derail his armed drive to take over Somalia. His militia began to harass UN peacekeeping forces, killing dozens of soldiers.
In early October 1993, US troops went on a raid to capture him. One of Aidid’s militiamen shot down a US Black Hawk helicopter. The frantic US rescue effort left 19 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead.
Clinton quickly moved to deflect criticism by first undoing his nation-building venture – without ever acknowledging he ordered it up. “It is not our job to rebuild Somalia’s society or even to create a political process that can allow Somalia’s clans to live and work in peace,” he said in a speech after the firefight.
He said food deliveries would continue, but that troops from other countries replace US forces. He scheduled the American withdrawal for March 31, 1994. “We must also leave on our terms,” he said.
“I am convinced we will have lived up to the responsibilities of American leadership in the world.”
Clinton’s Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, resigned and saved the president’s Somalia decisions from a possible spiral of repercussions. Aspin attributed his exit to personal issues, but it was common knowledge that he had turned down a request for tanks to help defend US troops.
No apologies from Bush
George W Bush, who launched the Iraq invasion and oversaw almost the entire US occupation, never apologized for either, much less admitted mistakes. It can’t be said mission creep arrived stealthily. It was always implicit in the eight-year US oversight in Iraq.
No single incident, as in Beirut or Somalia, sparked the end of American ground action in Iraq. Rather, the long build-up of American military casualties – 4,431 deaths – and the wasteful expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on physical reconstruction and training the Iraqi army led to occupation fatigue.
The frequent shift of enemies over time that prolonged combat contributed, too.
At first, the enemies were supporters of Saddam Hussein. Then Sunni Muslims who chafed under the discriminatory sectarian rule of the Shiite Muslim-dominated government. Then al-Qaeda, and then anti-American Shiite militias, some of which were under the command of US nemesis Iran.
Finally came Islamic State militants, who set up a caliphate in Central Iraq.
In 2011, Bush signed a withdrawal agreement of US forces with the Iraqi government. He declared victory – an eight-year habit of his – by asserting the country was on its way to a glorious future.
Iraq would become “a strong and capable democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace in the heart of the Middle East,” he said.
Bush expressed regret over only one aspect of the war and occupation: that US troops never uncovered a nuclear weapon program whose existence he used to justify the invasion. He blamed others: his own intelligence services had failed.
Biden avoids responsibility for the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan by saying he was always against it. That’s not true. Only when, as vice president under Barack Obama, did he object when Obama wanted to add troops to fight the Taliban.
But he must defend his planning and execution of the evacuation as the Taliban rolled to victory this spring and summer.
His administration’s errors are numerous: the failure to notify allies of his withdrawal plans; setting a date for withdrawal of American troops no matter what the conditions; optimistic predictions of the Afghan army’s ability to maintain control of the country; withdrawal from the main US military headquarters at Bagram airbase; and the pullout of 2,500 soldiers only to have to dispatch 5,000 back to organize a civilian evacuation.
Not the American way
Allied doubts about American leadership will linger.
Exceptionally difficult to defend is acknowledging that hundreds of Americans and many more Afghan allies will be left behind when US troops withdraw for good on Tuesday. Reminders of that failure will come in the form of appeals from Afghan partners and possibly even US citizens for rescue.
Private citizens embarking on makeshift rescue operations will highlight Biden’s reluctance to proactively save those left behind.
But most controversial, given the airport massacre, was the need to depend on enemy Taliban forces to secure access to the airport where US troops were trying to organize evacuations. A suicide bomber, apparently able to pass through the Taliban cordon without being searched, was able to arrive face to face with Marines at the airport gate and detonate.
For that, critics say Biden has blood on his hands.
It might be easier for Biden to at least acknowledge individual culpability and let a head or two roll. But that’s not the American presidential way.