When we last heard from the Taliban 10 months ago, they sent an urgent message addressed to the American people. In early October 2020, the same Taliban official now appearing on screens everywhere as their official spokesman took the highly unusual step of endorsing a candidate for president of the United States.
Their man was then-President Donald J. Trump.
“We hope he will win the election and wind up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan,” said Zabihullah Mujahid during an Oct. 10 interview with CBS News.
If not quite equal to North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un’s “love letters,” the endorsement radiated warmth. The Taliban leader predicted Trump “is going to win the upcoming election because he has proved himself a politician who accomplished all the major promises he had made to American people.”
Their endorsement gleefully insulted American democracy. Trump, crowed the Taliban, was the man who “could control the situation inside the country,” meaning our country. Trump, it emphasized, was the kind of leader that the Taliban admires.
Perhaps the Taliban chiefs were then still hoping for an invitation to Camp David, a prize the American president dangled in 2019. But the immediate occasion for the Taliban endorsement was Trump’s announcement that he expected to withdraw the last U.S. troops before the New Year.
“We should have the small remaining number of our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 9. His endorsement by the Taliban came the very next day.
The Trump Administration’s impulsive, often idiotic approach to national security served our adversaries very well. Among other things, he forced the release from prison of over 5,000 Taliban fighters – including the commanders who ultimately led the takeover of Kabul.
Imagine the horror show on the ground in Afghanistan if the U.S. government had tried to fulfill Trump’s pledge to pull everyone out by Christmas. Or even by last May, the date ultimately negotiated but pushed back four months by the Biden administration, which came into office without any idea what Trump was doing because he denied access to crucial information during the transition. Meanwhile, at Trump’s instigation the Republicans were busily spreading lies about the election and plotting an insurrection at home.
So, while congressional Republicans and right-wing pundits work themselves up into a lather over the collapse of the Afghan regime and ensuing chaos, we can put their sudden indignation into perspective. Very few have any standing to criticize Biden after silently passing over Trump’s withdrawal plan, which they’re now trying to erase.
Nor does that smaller faction of erstwhile Republicans – the Never Trumpers – have much credibility to complain about Biden. Most of them, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, who is bravely taking on Trump, are implicated in the Bush Administration decisions that led inexorably to this humiliating moment. They cheered the catastrophic Iraq invasion and the concomitant failure to support a successful Afghan occupation.
Those who say that the Afghanistan project was always doomed offer a powerful argument. But if there ever was an opportunity for a government to prevail there, it was squandered in the sands of Iraq.
By the time Biden entered office, the choices before him were extremely narrow. He could follow through on Trump’s badly negotiated scheme, or he could resume our role in a slow, brutal, hopeless civil war that might cost another 100,000 Afghan lives along with more American blood and treasure.
He promised to end the war and has the courage to fulfill that pledge. Nobody should be surprised by his policy choices.
But Biden should have known better than to believe reassurances about how long the Afghan regime could stand without our troops and air power. The inadequate plans for withdrawal, the premature decision to abandon the Bagram airbase and the failure to begin an early rescue operation for our Afghan friends all deserve criticism and inquiry.
Fortunately, congressional Democrats seem ready to scrutinize these intelligence and policy misjudgments. Were Republicans in charge of Congress during a Trump Administration withdrawal, rest assured there would be no searching oversight but only an obsequious rubber stamp.
Keeping his promise to end the forever war probably won’t diminish Biden. He must bend every effort to save the Afghans who assisted the U.S. and those building whatever civil society existed there. But Americans should think long and hard about the terrible errors of the last 20 years.