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Why Mike Pompeo's vacillations on Afghanistan matter

The former secretary of state celebrated our withdrawal from Afghanistan a month ago. Now he's trying to complain about the policy he backed.
Image: Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Interview
Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington, on July 25, 2019.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A month ago today, Mike Pompeo was in Iowa and spoke briefly to the Associated Press about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The former secretary of state was only too eager to "applaud" the withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying he wants "fewer kids in harm's way."

The Republican added, "I want the Afghans to take up the fight for themselves."

Yesterday, Pompeo nevertheless appeared on Fox News to denounce President Biden for pursuing a policy course that Pompeo celebrated 30 days earlier.

"Weak American leadership always harms American security, so this is in the context of the Biden administration that has basically abandoned the global stage in favor of climate change," Pompeo said. "They've been focused on critical race theory while the embassy is at risk. That didn't happen during our four years. I do think there's a real risk here."

The rhetoric was obviously lazy and intended for gullible partisans. Pompeo, ahead of a likely national campaign, seems to believe the GOP base will respond favorably to random references to buzz words -- so in a discussion about governmental collapse in Afghanistan, he squeezed in superfluous references to climate change and critical race theory, just for the heck of it.

But what Pompeo didn't want to talk about was his own record -- which includes both praise for Biden withdrawing from Afghanistan and the former cabinet secretary's own role in negotiating the deal with the Taliban in which U.S. forces would exit the country.

Indeed, it was 11 months ago when Pompeo published this tweet, with a photograph of him standing alongside Mullah Baradar, a Taliban cofounder who's likely to become Afghanistan's new president now that the country's government has collapsed.

The larger political problem isn't limited to the former secretary of state. Throughout much of the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans not only defended the U.S. war in Afghanistan, they also cheered for it to continue. Once Donald Trump rose to Republican power, much of the party followed his lead, denounced foreign interventions, and endorsed our withdrawal.

But now that the Taliban has regained control and our exit from Afghanistan is producing heartbreaking images, GOP voices want to simultaneously (a) condemn Joe Biden; (b) blame the administration for conditions in Afghanistan; (c) maintain alignment with Trump's position; and (d) avoid endorsing an extension of an unpopular and deadly war.

As a matter of political coherence, none of this is going especially well.

Postscript: If Biden had kept thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and maintained the kick-the-can-down-the-road approach, is there any doubt that many of his Republican critics would express outrage? And Pompeo would be on Fox complaining about Biden's reluctance to follow Trump's withdrawal deal with the Taliban?