Let it be said plainly: President Joe Biden is willing to accept Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.
Biden may not like it. He may not want it. And as he told us Thursday afternoon, he definitely doesn’t trust the Taliban. But with the last American troops pulling out of Afghanistan, and the president effectively ending our twenty-year military commitment there—on August 31, he now says; a dozen days earlier than his self-imposed deadline—he made clear that he knows the Taliban is going to be a major force in the country.
Biden is tired of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, as he explained in the East Room of the White House:
I judged that it was not in the national interest of the United States of America to continue fighting this war indefinitely. . . . Nearly twenty years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that “just one more year” of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.
He made it quite clear that he does not believe that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is inevitable:
The Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped—as well-equipped as any army in the world—and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable. . . I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.
He did not mention that some of that army equipment is reportedly falling into the hands of the surging Taliban, but he did predict that “the only way there’s ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan” is if Afghan officials “work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace.” And he committed to sending resources to the country even after the last U.S. troops have left: “We are not going just . . . walk away and not sustain [the Afghan government’s] ability to maintain that force. We are. We’re going to also work to make sure we help them in terms of everything from food necessities and other things”—presumably meaning arms and cash.
While the president understandably refused to take a reporter’s bait to declare “mission accomplished” in as many words, he noted that we took care of business. He described our two reasons for having been in Afghanistan: “One, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time. The second reason was to eliminate al Qaeda’s capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory. We accomplished both of those objectives—period.”
Biden’s drawdown of troops didn’t come as precipitously as President Donald Trump’s failed lame-duck, slapdash scramble to pull out of the country by the end of last year. Instead, it came after Biden, members of his cabinet, and military advisers carefully considered every option and what the endgame without the United States in Afghanistan would look like. This meant accepting the reality that there would be what Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday called an “uptick” in violence and turmoil in Afghanistan: “The President was very clear . . . that there would be an uptick in violence, that there would be an uptick in turmoil on the ground. We knew that, and we knew the security situation would become more difficult.”
And that brings us back to accepting the possibility that the Taliban may return to ruling the country as they did before our invasion twenty years ago.
That was the point of my question to Psaki in her press briefing on Thursday.
Karem: The question naturally is whether or not, at the end of the day, you’re accepting the fact or the possibility that the Taliban could indeed take over Afghanistan?
Psaki: Well, Brian, I, again, will refer you to intelligence assessments and the fact that the President asked for a cleared-eye assessment—a clear-eyed assessment at the beginning of this process.
Psaki: And what I can convey to you clearly is why he made the decision . . .
The president and his administration won’t plainly admit that they’re willing to accept the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan because that would raise the question of why we spent twenty years there. Admitting that also would taste too much like defeat—and the bile of Vietnam—as reporters noted during the Q&A with Biden.
But Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There has been some sustained, though limited, stability in the country because of the United States. Afghanistan’s political leadership and armed forces now have to learn to take care of the country one way or another, because Uncle Sam the surrogate parent is heading for the exit.
It is vitally important, however, that we take care of those in the country who are vulnerable because they assisted U.S. forces as translators and interpreters and guides over these last twenty years, and Biden referred both to plans to remove them to third countries to keep them safe, and also to his hope that Congress will make it easier for them to come to the United States.
We “did not go there to nation-build,” Biden said of Afghanistan. But the truth is that, ever since President George W. Bush said to a joint session of Congress that “justice will be done,” the United States and its allies have struggled to make Afghanistan a pro-western democracy—in effect an attempt at nation-building.
Now Biden admits that it is “unlikely” that there will ultimately “be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country.”
That is as close to admitting the Taliban will be involved in governing the country in the near future as Biden dares to get—and it’s a wake-up call to other countries in the region.
The decision to leave, after two generations of American military personnel have served and sacrificed in Afghanistan—literally: some of the troops who have served there recently are children of those who served there soon after 9/11—is a difficult one, made all the more difficult by the impending violence and the Taliban’s return. And then there is the ugly possibility that the country could once again become a staging area for terrorists who could then threaten the United States. Biden is counting on diplomatic efforts to thwart that possibility.
It’s not an easy call to make. It may not be the right one. And depending on what happens in the country, Biden may regret it.
But it is an informed and decisive move. Biden made the hard call.
That’s what we pay presidents to do.