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Biden's Choices In Afghanistan Were Complicated. So Is The Fallout He Faces

President Biden departs after speaking from the White House Treaty Room on April 14 to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Andrew Harnik
Pool/Getty Images
President Biden departs after speaking from the White House Treaty Room on April 14 to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

The fall of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan to the Taliban happened faster than almost anyone in Washington — or Kabul — could have imagined.

As of Sunday afternoon, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled his nation, the Taliban were on the verge of once again running the country, and President Biden authorized sending in thousands of additional troops to try and safely extract U.S. diplomatic personnel and others out of Kabul.

It's a stunning turn of events, all taking place just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that precipitated America's offensive into Afghanistan. And it adds yet another issue to the mounting Republican attacks against Biden a year before congressional Democrats stand for reelection with a tenuous hold on power in Washington.

Republican hawks are once again circling after years of dormancy under the Trump presidency.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the Biden administration was warned that things would be this bad. Cotton said the withdrawal has "humiliated America." Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., charged that Biden had "turned his back on our allies."

The truth, of course, is never so black and white, or blue and red.

A long, difficult history

A full withdrawal of U.S. forces from an unpopular war, America's longest, in a country where more than 172,000 people have been killed, including thousands of U.S. service members, and $1 trillion spent, was always going to be messy — and a blow to American pride.

The critics are out in full force, comparing this to the fall of Saigon after the conflict in Vietnam or the slaughter of Srebrenica in the Balkans in the 1990s.

But Afghanistan has been its own unique conundrum for a long time.

It's a country other powerful outside nations have previously been unsuccessful in. Its infrastructure and economy have long been in shambles, in no small part because of rampant corruption in the American-backed government. And after the U.S. chased out the Taliban, gaining the trust of the local populace, some of whom saw the U.S. as foreign invaders, was always going to be difficult.

That's especially true considering 90% of the world's heroin comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan. Farmers felt pressure to keep growing the crop, and seeing no economic alternative to poppy — and no guarantees of long-term security from the U.S. military or the Kabul government — many made the hard choice to continue to do so.

Struggling to an end

The inability to foster long-term economic growth and prosperity has long-stirred debate about what the U.S. mission was in Afghanistan, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden a decade ago.

Bin Laden was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He was given safe haven by the Taliban, and he recruited and trained fighters in Afghanistan.

How to end the war has been an enigma for American presidents.

George W. Bush largely abandoned Afghanistan and instead turned to a futile and costly attempt at regime change and then nation-building in Iraq.

Barack Obama refocused on Afghanistan and what he felt was the core mission — finding and killing bin Laden. But from the beginning of his presidency, Obama felt pressure from the Pentagon not to pull out of the country totally. He began a drawdown after bin Laden's killing but never left completely.

The continued U.S. presence in the country grew unpopular with Americans, including many Republicans. Neoconservative hawks took a back seat to the domestic-focused populism of the Tea Party, which former President Donald Trump rode to the top of the GOP.

Trump defied his party orthodoxy, sawing off the national-security hawk leg of the three-legged Republican stool that stood firm since President Ronald Reagan led the party, and he laid the foundation for the withdrawal by making a deal with the Taliban that was supposed to have U.S. troops out by May 1. There was talk for a while of inviting them to Camp David last year to ink a deal.

Trump now criticizes the way Biden withdrew the forces. Biden will own the consequences of the withdrawal, but Trump's position as the most popular person in his party puts GOP hawks in a difficult spot, too.

Biden had always been for a limited footprint in Afghanistan, dating back to his days as vice president. During the Obama administration, he argued for a significant drawdown but still retaining the capability of special forces to launch counterterrorism missions.

That has been less of a focus for Biden as president, suggesting it's over and done with.

"I believed that our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place — to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again," Biden said in April. "We did that. We accomplished that objective."

On Saturday, Biden said in a statement, in part: "I have ordered our Armed Forces and our Intelligence Community to ensure that we will maintain the capability and the vigilance to address future terrorist threats from Afghanistan."

How that will happen is unclear, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that the U.S. is more capable of launching counterterrorism strikes now than before 9/11.

"We are in a much different and much better place than we were right before 9/11," Blinken said. "The group that attacked us has been dramatically diminished. Its capacity to attack us again from Afghanistan, dramatically diminished. Our ability to see if it reemerges and our capacity to do something about that is very strong. And so in that sense, I think we're in a much better place than we were 20 years ago."

Political pressure and a debate that will likely continue for generations

The U.S. certainly doesn't have the same peace-and-prosperity blinders on that it did in the 1990s, but there are those, particularly aligned with the military, who argue the U.S. should have stayed longer because, without the U.S. there, the inevitable happened.

The Taliban wrested control from a pro-Western government, and there are fears that since the Taliban gave cover once to al-Qaida, that terrorist cells could rise again without a robust U.S. presence in the country.

That narrative is a popular one, especially in a Washington media echo chamber that has often been criticized for being too pro-military. Others believe that's wrong, however, and that staying in Afghanistan, perhaps perpetually, would be a fool's errand.

"However ugly the denouement, Biden understood the reality of the situation better than his military advisors," left-leaning writer Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo writes, adding, "After 20 years it was up to the Afghans to decide their own future. This is a fight for Afghans, not another generation of American boys. A perpetual deployment was not in the security interests of the United States."

That's precisely the argument the Biden administration is making.

"Twenty years, $1 trillion, 2,300 Americans who lost their lives, a massive investment," Blinken said on Meet the Press. "And the president concluded that it was time to end this war."

He added that America has been in Afghanistan longer than the British in the 19th century and twice as long as the Russians in the 20th century.

"As a strategic matter," Blinken said, "there is nothing that our strategic competitors would like more than to see us bogged down and mired in Afghanistan for another five, 10, 20 years. That is not in the national interest."

Whether leaving Afghanistan turns out to be in the national interest or not, what is clear now is that, a year before the first midterm elections of his presidency, which are historically unkind to the party in power, Biden has a full plate of attacks against him and his party, foreign and domestic — from Afghanistan, to the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, to the uncertain economy, crime and immigration — with which he has to contend.

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.