Words by William Glenton, Liberate The Debate Society member
“America is back.”, tweeted Joe Biden a few weeks after the 2020 election had been called in his favour. There was worry from countless institutional liberals that, under the Trump Presidency, the U.S.A. was an embarrassment to its allies and to the “international community”. The then incumbent was and is still known for his undiplomatic tone. Could the United States be trusted as the world’s benevolent hegemon with such a loudmouth as president?
Trump, in efforts to please non-interventionists at home, wanted out of Afghanistan too. He and his team even had a plan for withdrawal, and the ultimate transfer of de facto power to the American-backed regime. Broadly, this plan consisted of reductions in U.S. boots on the ground in exchange for the Taliban and the recognised Afghan government meeting certain requirements. Undoubtedly there were flaws to this plan, and had Trump “stopped the steal” in 2020, he would have been forced to own any of the negative consequences.
‘Sleepy Joe’ took power in January, promising to rebuild the image of America, and promising to bring the Republic back from the brink of insurrection and sedition, a stabilising force. Later, he extended the deadline for the last troops to be out from May to September 11th. In hindsight this new date only emphasises the general scale of tragedy that we are all now witness to.
Biden never had to stick to the flawed plan that he inherited, the backlash he would have received for that is certainly miniscule when compared to the backlash he is now subject to. The plan, even with Biden’s updates, makes one very clear mistake. You should never trust people you have been fighting and killing for 20 years. It’s very simple. They have a vested interest in making you look foolish to demoralise your troops, and unreliable to your allies. There is probably some formulation of this nature in Sun Tzu or Machiavelli. I haven’t checked.
Biden also cannot distance himself from his administration’s absurd handling of the crisis. It began by asserting that this total failure of a withdrawal would not resemble the fall of Saigon. Days later, helicopters were extracting U.S. diplomats from the American embassy in Kabul in true Saigonesque fashion. Next, while allies including the U.K. were scrambled throughout Kabul to retrieve their citizens and Afghans who had done much to help allied forces, American forces were prevented from doing the same, only processing potential evacuees at the airport. Of course, this meant civilians flocked to the airport.
Days later still, dozens of people were killed by a terrorist bomb at the airport, including 13 American servicemen. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. Biden retreated to Camp David, and the administration was silent, perhaps just waiting for the fury manifesting in the almighty press to subside. Then the last American plane, other than those among the $80 billion worth of military kit left behind for the Taliban to find, left Afghanistan. Hundreds if not thousands of Americans, allies, and Afghans who helped us were left behind. Then Biden had the nerve to address the American people and call the whole thing a success. God help us. All of this is the work of a man who throughout his career prided himself on his foreign policy prowess.
So where has this all left us? The closest allies of the U.S. are furious that Biden would not extend the deadline to withdraw forces to allow them to extract their nationals and deserving Afghans. 20 years of U.S. military action, over 4,000 American lives, 457 British lives, countless thousands of Afghan civilian lives, 2.3 trillion crisp green Federal Reserve Dollars, all squandered. And for what? A couple of weeks of non-Taliban, non-American government in Kabul.
In a functioning country, leaders must take responsibility for failures under their administration’s watch. Perhaps the “United” States of America is no longer functioning, and Afghanistan will live up to its name as the Graveyard of Empires. If, as ‘Sleepy Joe’ suggested, “America is Back.”, and this is what he means, it may be time to look for a new global hegemon.
Elon Musk recently, and rather cryptically, tweeted a quote from a book about World War I, marvelling at the aesthetic splendour of the old European order before the war, but foreshadowing its total destruction a few short years later. The way things are going, the liberal international order may not be remembered with such reverence, particularly if what we have seen over the last couple of months is its dying breath.
Georgia Radley, Liberate The Debate Society
Is Joe Biden responsible for the Taliban taking control of Kabul and Afghanistan? No, he is not.
The U.S. decision to withdraw their troops from the 20-year conflict within Afghanistan was an action issued by former President Donald Trump in his 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban. The main features of this agreement set out America’s plans to withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 later this year. This was in exchange for the Taliban’s promise to prevent any group or individual from using Afghanistan to attack or threaten America or its allies. As claimed by Biden himself, this 2020 peace agreement meant that his hands were tied as he only had two options: withdraw U.S. troops or stay in Afghanistan and escalate the war against the Taliban. The option to stay and increase fighting was one that had no support from American politicians or the American public.
As reported within the Washington Post, Trump had already withdrawn troops from Afghanistan, with numbers reducing from 100,000 U.S. troops during the Obama administration to 3,500 when Biden took presidency. This already meant that Afghanistan’s military support had severely been reduced in terms of manpower and international resources, and even though America had provided Afghan troops with military support, training, and resources for 20 years, it has been reported upon reflection of the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul by critics that Afghan troops lacked the morale, willpower and coordination that would have been necessary to defeat the Taliban on their own.
As a result, it appears that to achieve Biden’s alternative option of an escalation of war, America would have had to increase their military intervention and resend thousands of U.S. troops into Afghanistan – a decision that would not have the support of Congress or the American public. In fact, the opinions and support from American politicians and the public are crucial to consider when discussing Biden’s responsibility for the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan. Any route taken by Biden must have support from Congress and the public, or at least be a decision taken in accordance with advice from senior officials. The decision to withdraw U.S. troops had bipartisan support – a fact that should be emphasised in a country that is so often criticised for its polarised politics.
According to a poll conducted by Gallup, when America first invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following 9/11 89% of the American public supported the decision, with support increasing to 93% in 2002. However, by 2021, support for military intervention had decreased to 47%, with the Washington Post reporting that in May 2021 support for withdrawal of troops stood at 62%. Reporting on the current events, multiple newspapers unanimously agree that the overall American public and Congress believe in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Even after this withdrawal has been criticised for being ‘mishandled’, support has remained for the overall action.
Consequently, whilst there may have been two options to take regarding the situation in Afghanistan, Joe Biden only really had the option to choose one. Even with the facts stating an escalation of war would be an unrealistic option, Joe Biden was always going to commit to continuing Trump’s withdrawal plans since he promised such in his 2020 presidential election victory. Biden, the American public and Congress, across all political ideologies, were all committed to the withdrawal of their troops, demonstrating that this was a decision that America argues it was in the right to make.
Furthermore, the argument must be made that there are other people or organisations who can, and arguably should, be held responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan in addition to or instead of Biden. For instance, blame could be passed onto the multiple senior officials and advisors in Biden’s ear prior to any decision-making, such as national security advisor Jake Sullivan. Possibly, most of the mantle rests with former President George W. Bush for starting the 20-year conflict. Britain’s Boris Johnson may have played his own part, considering Britain also withdrew their troops.
Overall, Biden is not responsible for the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan. His decision was taken based on the advice of senior officials and multiple advisors. Most importantly, the withdrawal of U.S. troops was a necessary action initiated by his predecessor and upheld with the support of the American public.