But any sense that the US is free of consequences of a war in which it bled for 20 years is belied by the history of a country that exacts a fierce price from its former occupiers. And the trauma of the two weeks since the fall of Kabul have already left an indelible mark on Joe Biden’s presidency, Washington’s bitter politics and the reputation of America among its disappointed allies.
Biden can lay claim to having the guts to finally end a war that had long been lost but outlived the presidencies of three predecessors. This may resonate more widely in the future among voters than the Beltway critics of his withdrawal may appreciate. And the crush of other domestic challenges, including a worsening pandemic, could soon redirect the rare spotlight from what was until a few months ago often referred to as the “forgotten war.”
The coming Washington showdown over the war
The GOP charge that Biden left Americans behind could be an incendiary one, given that their chances to leave freely and safely seem remote under the Taliban. And the risks inherent in Biden’s promised “over the horizon” anti-terror strategy were highlighted by the deaths of a young Afghan family this weekend in a US strike on what the American military insisted was a vehicle bomb destined for Kabul airport.
Yet the last few weeks also showcased the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, which ignored its complicity in ex-President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, a folding that set the stage for the current debacle. The usual torrent of misinformation pumped out by conservative media — as US troops were stationed on a dangerous foreign battlefield — showed that the threat to truth posed by the previous presidency is far from passed, and is the latest sign that Biden’s pleas for national unity will go unfulfilled.
GOP lawmakers who excused and enabled the former President’s historic assault on democracy demanded Biden’s impeachment or resignation. And Trump’s own staggering incoherence over the war he boasted about forcing Biden to end shone through in a statement Monday in which he appeared to suggest the US should reinvade to recapture hardware already destroyed by the military.
The heroism of fallen troops
But the retreat also showcased US might.
That last departing US jet followed scores of previous flights that lifted more than 123,000 Americans, Afghans and citizens of allied nations out of Afghanistan, in an extraordinary operation that seemed impossible only 10 days ago after the collapse of the Afghan government.
The 13 US troops who died in an ISIS-K attack perished while giving Afghans and their descendants a chance of life in the US and elsewhere, which will play out over generations.
Biden’s legacy however now risks being damaged by events beyond his control. Not least the fact that when he marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks next month, the Taliban — hosts of al Qaeda in 2001 — will celebrate their renewed control of a failed state again rife with terrorists.
There’s an argument that Biden was simply cutting US losses and preventing more bloodshed, heartache and agony by finally ending the war.
In the East Room of the White House on July 8, Biden reported to the country that the US drawdown was “proceeding in a secure and orderly way” and noted that because of the way the withdrawal was managed “no one — no one, US forces or any forces have … been lost.”
The reputation of a leader who ran on compassion and always leveling with Americans will take some repairing.
Biden’s defenders also have a point that many pundits who criticized the President were former generals and officials whose own strategic failures had led to the war earning the epithet “forever.” But the charges that all critics of the withdrawal effort were war hawks proved that media misinformation is not the exclusive sin of the right.
Awaiting the judgment of history
Among the key questions yet to be answered:
- Why did the President and his administration fail so spectacularly to appreciate the fragility of the Afghan government and army? The misjudgment laid the groundwork for the chaos of an evacuation that began with several desperate Afghans falling to their deaths after clinging to the outside of US jets.
- Why were there insufficient troops to cover the long-planned retreat? The abandonment of the Bagram Air Force Base to focus the evacuations out of the US embassy and international airport in Kabul is one of the biggest criticisms coming from Biden’s GOP critics.
- How did the US get to the point where its forces were marooned on the small island of the Hamid Karzai International Airport that was highly unsuitable for mounting one of the biggest airlifts in human history?
- And why were US troops reliant on security at the airport provided by their enemy, the Taliban?
- Why didn’t the administration move more quickly to process Special Immigrant Visa applicants given the urgency being expressed by veterans groups and multiple lawmakers on Capitol Hill? What effect did Trump’s gutting of the US refugee application system have on this?
Biden is fortunate in the short-term that both chambers of Congress are currently controlled by Democrats. While Republicans are vowing to hold him to account, their capacity to do so in the minority is severely limited. And given the cascade of events that will unfold between now and the midterm elections, it is not clear even that a Republican-controlled House or Senate could secure punishing traction for events that will be 16 months in the past.
As time rolls on, a president’s legacy becomes defined by a few key highlights, which create a kind of symbolism that exemplifies how they are remembered. For Jimmy Carter, it was the disastrous Iran hostage crisis. For Ronald Reagan, it was his call on the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall.
The role of Biden’s Afghan episode will play in shaping his own place in history will depend on what happens in the coming years, and whether the deficiencies of his own leadership recently revealed are confined to the messy retreat after America’s longest war or become mirrored in other crises.