It also shone a harsh light on President Joe Biden’s decision-making and the chaotic nature of the US withdrawal that left American troops and civilians so vulnerable, in the confusing, chaotic days after the Taliban seized Kabul.
The most alarming realization in the aftermath of the carnage was that there may be more to come before the deadline for the US to leave for good on Tuesday.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who heads US Central Command, warned that new threats from ISIS-K, possibly involving rockets or vehicle borne suicide bombs could be imminent. That means that the next four days will be among the most tense and dangerous of the entire war for US troops. And the awful possibility remains that the country’s last victim of the first post-9/11 war is yet to die.
At a time of national tragedy, nations turn to their leaders. Biden, who spent much of the day in the White House Situation Room, emerged in the late afternoon for a televised speech. Torn between grief and resolve, he vowed vengeance. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” the President told the terrorists in remarks that mostly seemed aimed at projecting strength to Americans at home.
“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing,” the President said. Biden’s withdrawal marks the symbolic reversal of the US arrival in Afghanistan launched after 9/11 and the strategy of putting troops on the ground in foreign states to fight terrorism.
Some things in Biden’s speech don’t add up
Biden’s address on Thursday was punctuated by several contradictions.
Secondly, Biden’s capacity to strike back hard at ISIS-K is going to be far more difficult without US troops on the ground, or anywhere close to Afghanistan. His promise will be a first real test of what he calls “over the horizon” capabilities, presumably using air power or drones armed with missiles, to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a terror haven that could threaten US security. It also means US operations in the country are not ending, but are changing.
“We may be leaving Afghanistan. We are not quitting Afghanistan, the terror struggle and the counter-terrorism effort continues,” CNN national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst Juliette Kayyem said on Thursday evening.
If nothing else, the attacks exemplified the dilemma Biden faced when he was asked by allies to extend the deadline. By leaving, he may be unable to bring every American and thousands of allied Afghans out of the Taliban’s clutches. But staying would expose US troops to even graver danger.
The bombings also laid bare the extreme weakness of the US position in Afghanistan. After fighting the Taliban for 20 years, American forces are now reliant on the same insurgents with no experience in providing security to prevent terrorist attackers reaching the Kabul airport — an arrangement that failed disastrously before the bombings. But the President insisted it was not a mistake to rely on US enemies for help.
“It’s not what you would call a tightly commanded regimented operation like the US military is, but they are acting in their interests,” he told reporters after his speech.
The second attack Thursday on a hotel near the airport gate, which had been used to corral some refugees, likely closed off that method of getting people onto the airport grounds. This is another knock on the administration’s planning and management of an evacuation that ended up depending on an airport in the middle of an impossible-to-secure urban area in one of the most lawless cities in one of the world’s most failed states. Already, the tragedy is raising scrutiny of another decision, to walk out of the vast former US base at Bagram airfield, and critics now wonder if there were ever sufficient troops in the country to effect a safe, efficient withdrawal.
Biden’s leadership questioned
During a chaotic 10 days, Biden’s defenders have accused those who have criticized his performance of trying to saddle him with the failures of three previous presidents and disastrous decisions that lost the war years ago. Tragically, their talking point — that no US troops had died in the effort — is now moot and always showed little appreciation of the hugely perilous environment inside Afghanistan.
It is also ironic that Biden, who was all along one of the most skeptical Washington leaders of the US nation building project in Afghanistan, should end up carrying the can for the consequences of the eventual US departure.
But Biden also ran for office in 2020 on a platform of competence and he styled himself as a foreign policy expert. It is hard to look at the debacle of recent days and see those qualities at work. Most of Biden’s televised predictions — that the Taliban wouldn’t suddenly overtake Kabul and there would not be a Saigon-style exit for the US — were wrong. And he now seems vulnerable to Republican charges of weakness and stumbling leadership that may not be completely fair given the impossibility of his choices in Afghanistan but represent a real political danger ahead of the midterm elections.
“Joe Biden has a very intuitive sense of the American people. He understands that there is a great deal of American support for Republicans as well as Democrats for reducing America’s involvement in the world,” Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“One of the things he is banking on is a short period of chaos will be accepted by the American people as a down payment on a future more sustainable American position in the world.”
To this point, Biden was asked at the White House if, after the horror of Thursday, he regretted his decision to follow through on Trump’s withdrawal.
“Our interest in going was to prevent al Qaeda from reemerging, first to get Osama bin Laden, wipe out al Qaeda in Afghanistan, prevent that from happening again,” Biden said. “Ladies and gentleman, it was time to end a 20-year war.”
Naftali, however, warned that a large part of Biden’s legacy would be dictated by whether terrorists with the power to attack the US will find a new haven in the anarchical atmosphere of Taliban-run Afghanistan.
And as Thursday showed, presidents for all their power, are often hostage to horrific events beyond their control.