IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal speech missed something important

The president regrets nothing — but the images out of Afghanistan will haunt him.
Image: Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport.
People climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport Monday.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images; MSNBC

President Joe Biden addressed the nation about the state of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday — mainly, it seemed, to say he regretted nothing. "Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building," he said. He blamed the Taliban's rapid advances across the country on Afghan security forces' failing "to mount any real resistance to the Taliban."

These images won’t exactly inflict a lethal blow on the Biden presidency, but they will haunt him.

But the president had virtually nothing to say about what's on everyone's minds: how poorly prepared the U.S. was for the Taliban's blitz and the vulnerable position he has left so many Afghans in as a result.

In the past several days, the Taliban's astonishing takeover of the country has been so swift that Washington effectively had to beg the Taliban to let it evacuate embassy personnel safely, and U.S. military helicopters were called in to airlift diplomats to the airport in Kabul. Over the weekend, people hoping to escape the country swarmed runways, and some clung to departing U.S. military aircraft during takeoff — sometimes for so long that they fell to their deaths. Images of the gut-wrenching scramble that have gone viral have been likened to the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Vietnam War.

These images won't exactly inflict a lethal blow on the Biden presidency, but they will haunt him. It's clear that the poorly executed withdrawal will hurt U.S. credibility internationally, and it has already begun to attract harsh criticism from humanitarians concerned about how little was done to protect vulnerable Afghans. While many experts say an eventual Taliban takeover was inevitable given the failure of the U.S.'s nation-building project, the Biden administration's poor preparation for withdrawal will be a stain on the president's legacy in a policy area in which he was supposed to be most seasoned.

Leading up to these events, withdrawal was a deeply popular policy, with surveys consistently finding that an overwhelming majority of Americans supported getting out of Afghanistan. The U.S.-led war on terrorism has taken a back seat to the rise of China, both as a strategic priority for the government and in national conversations about America's role in the world. And Donald Trump's presidency persuaded many Republicans that the U.S. should step away from sustained interventions and forever wars, meaning Biden won't be as vulnerable to partisan broadsides.

The Biden administration’s poor preparation for withdrawal will be a stain on the president's legacy in a policy area in which he was supposed to be most seasoned.

But it's also quite apparent that the administration took little care to ensure that things were in place to keep the country running and to protect Afghans, especially those who were likely to be Taliban targets because of their relationships with American security operations. As The New York Times reports:

[Biden] and his aides failed to get the interpreters and others who helped American forces out of the country fast enough, and they were mired in immigration paperwork. There was no reliable mechanism in place for contractors to keep the Afghan Air Force flying as Americans packed up. The plan Mr. Biden talked about in late June to create what he called an "over-the-horizon capability" to bolster the Afghan forces in case Kabul was threatened was only half-baked before those Afghan forces collapsed.

Of particular note is the Biden administration's abandonment of vulnerable Afghans; given that the Taliban's re-emergence was expected, more attention should have been paid to those who were most at risk. Despite months of calls from advocacy organizations and Congress, Biden resisted taking decisive steps to ensure a speedy and safe exit for interpreters. And the U.S.'s refugee admissions program is shamefully impractical and inaccessible for many Afghans. As Melanne Verveer, the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, recently wrote in The Washington Post:

U.S. refugee admissions guidelines require applicants and their eligible family members to relocate to a third country — at their own expense — before their cases can even begin to be processed. Visas are difficult for Afghan women activists to come by in the best of times. With the twin disasters of covid-19 and war now raging across Afghanistan, most countries have ceased offering visas altogether. Some U.S. officials have suggested women go to the borders of neighboring countries to claim asylum. But the Taliban is rapidly seizing control of border crossings and closing major roadways. Asking Afghan women to make their way to the border is like leading lambs to a slaughter.

More broadly speaking, there's an issue of the U.S.'s signaling incompetence to the world. After 20 years, the loss of tens of thousands of lives and the expenditure of more money than the U.S. has ever spent on another country, the mission to rebuild Afghanistan fell apart before the withdrawal could even be completed. Some politicians in the U.K., who allied with the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan, have been strikingly critical of the withdrawal. And while they may have been critical of any withdrawal, the optics of this one have left the U.S. more vulnerable to attack.

The effects of these events are hard to measure, but it makes the U.S. look like an empire in decline — its poor management could embolden international rivals and make allies less inclined to trust American leadership. It could also nudge Biden to recalculate the tone of other foreign policy decision-making — he may, for example, feel more pressure to make decisions that present the U.S. as assertive in the international arena, like confronting China and Russia.

We're going to see plenty of postmortems in the coming weeks and months about the intelligence failures and missteps by various agencies that created the conditions for this botched withdrawal. But since they happened on Biden's watch, he must own them. And it's unfortunate to see that he's presiding over such a careless withdrawal from a country that has been beaten down by 40 consecutive years of war.