In the Biden administration’s rush to withdraw from Afghanistan by its self-imposed August 31 deadline, a suicide bomber at Kabul’s airport killed 13 U.S. service personnel, and a still-unknown number of American citizens, green-card holders, and Afghan allies remain behind under Taliban rule. President Joe Biden has consistently sought to shift the blame for this ongoing debacle, including by unfairly implicating the U.S. military in the decisions surrounding the withdrawal. But it was Biden’s ill-conceived plan for withdrawing U.S. troops, not the military, that precipitated this tragedy.
Biden has attempted to shift some of the blame to Donald Trump, arguing that he was only proceeding with the withdrawal as part of an agreement that his predecessor had negotiated with the Taliban. This is an odd claim, given that Biden certainly hasn’t felt bound to honor other Trump commitments, such as getting out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. The truth is that Biden agreed with Trump’s policy of withdrawing from Afghanistan. When President Barack Obama contemplated surging U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009, then-Vice President Biden opposed the move, wanting to preserve only a counterterrorism force there to prevent an al-Qaida resurgence. By some accounts, Biden thought the military was “boxing in” the president, forcing him to choose a surge instead of a drawdown. As president, he stuck with a policy of total withdrawal on a tight timeline.
On August 26, Biden claimed that there was “complete unanimity from every commander on the objectives of this mission and the best way to achieve those objectives.” The implication is that his military advisors should share in the blame for his decision.
I believe that, on the contrary, it’s likely that Biden overruled his military advisors, as some reporting has already suggested. Senior U.S. military officers tend to be tight-lipped about their objections to presidential decisions because of the powerful norm of civilian supremacy over military affairs. This norm is the core tenet of military professionalism in the U.S. To say that U.S. military commanders are committed to the mission in no way implies that they agree with it; nor should they share in the blame if the president disregards their best advice.
Right now, we can only speculate about precisely what advice Biden’s military advisors shared with him, but it’s unlikely that American military leaders would have sanctioned on their own the accelerated withdrawal that the president demanded. My years of studying military history and military doctrine have taught me that fighting withdrawals are among the most difficult military operations to undertake, even for a highly disciplined and well-trained military force. Moreover, the Afghanistan withdrawal was to take place during the active fighting season, when favorable weather tends to increase the tempo of Taliban operations. The Afghan government requested that Biden delay the withdrawal until the winter, when conditions reduce the mobility of forces in the region. Wedded to his timeline, the president refused.
Biden has also blamed the precipitous collapse on the Afghan army and government, deriding their lackluster performance. Corruption and absenteeism did indeed cripple the Afghan army, but even corrupt armies have managed to put up tough resistances in difficult circumstances, when sufficiently supported. In 1973, the Army of South Vietnam, a military force notorious for venality, fought fiercely and beat back a major offensive by North Vietnam with U.S. air support. South Vietnam’s final defeat two years later came only after Congress cut off all support.
In this case, Biden didn’t wait for Congress to force his hand but acted on his own to remove U.S. air and logistical support from the Afghan military. The result was predictable. And if in fact the military professionals surrounding the president warned him of this possibility, then the commander-in-chief alone should bear the blame.
But we shouldn’t be left to speculate about what the top brass did or didn’t tell Biden. Congressional committees must investigate this debacle. Americans deserve to know exactly what the military and the intelligence community told the president.
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