Afghanistan won't derail the Biden presidency

America's chaotic withdrawal could be a stain on his legacy but it's unlikely to be an electoral issue

Reporters from foreign and domestic news outlets, during the past week, asked me about the Biden administration's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Foreign journalists asked what I think the impact of the abandonment of the Afghan government would have on American prestige and on the trust that allies could have in US commitments. American reporters, on the other hand, focused on the impact that the scenes at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul would have on President Joe Biden's favourable ratings and Democratic prospects in the 2022 midterm elections.

The answers to the first set of questions were easy. America's prestige and trust had already suffered a blow at the hands of the George W Bush administration's reckless and ideologically driven wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his equally flawed democracy crusade.

Mr Bush squandered the commitment of his father, former president George HW Bush, to diplomacy and cautious use of American power with his belief that he could remake the Middle East according to the vision of his neoconservative advisers. Discounting the more sober assessments of the intelligence community who said it would be a mistake to ignore the powerful centrifugal forces of Afghanistan's tribal, sectarian and ethnic divisions, Mr Bush set out to create a moderate pro-American democracy in that country (as well as in Iraq). The two succeeding administrations understood that this was a doomed endeavour, but for domestic political reasons, they continued to prop up the government in Kabul.

Twenty years later, the job of pulling the plug on this disastrous war fell to Mr Biden. It is unfair to blame Mr Biden for acknowledging the failure of this long war and putting an end to it. Where fault can be found is in the execution of the withdrawal, which has been a disaster.

The success of a president is determined less by their ability to accomplish the agenda they set for themselves, than by their success in responding to the unexpected agenda that is set for them by the events of the day. In this regard, Mr Biden's first 100 days were a success. Despite a precariously narrow Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives and Senate, he was able to enact some of his campaign promises. Then reality kicked in.

The surge of undocumented immigrants on the southern border, the resurgence of the pandemic, and now Afghanistan have all served as hard reminders that the agenda set by reality always supersedes one’s own agenda. After initially being caught unprepared, the Biden administration has struggled to find its footing in addressing both the situation at the border and the pandemic resurgence, though the jury is still out on how ultimately successful their handling of both will be. Of the three crises, these first two will be more critical in shaping voters' confidence in the administration. Afghanistan is another matter.

The collapse of the Kabul government and the victory of the Taliban should have been expected, and therefore, the withdrawal should have been better prepared. When former president Barack Obama was facing the 2011 deadline for the expiration of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government headed by then prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, I cautioned that it's not the date you set for withdrawal that matters as much as what you do between now and that date. The same held true for Afghanistan.

With the departure date set by the previous Trump administration approaching, the question must be asked why we weren't better prepared for it. Why was the pre-emptive withdrawal of US troops followed by the sudden announcement to send reinforcements? Why wasn't there a plan for a more orderly phased evacuation? What was or was not involved in discussions (negotiations?) with the Taliban over the past several years?

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Republicans may seek to exploit the Afghanistan disaster, but it will not serve them well to do so

In any case, the scenes at the airport are now emblazoned on the minds of people worldwide. The disastrous Bush-led, and Obama- and Trump-sustained war in Afghanistan is over, for now. In a sense, it may seem unfair that the lasting images of that failure will be visited on Mr Biden, but politics is never fair. If he had continued to prop up the government, the opposition Republican Party would have criticised him, just as it is now criticising him for betraying an ally. And if he hadn't offered to evacuate Afghans who worked with the US, he would have been attacked by Republicans for abandoning them, just as he is now being attacked for offering to bring many to the US.

That said, the domestic fall-out of the chaotic nature of the US departure from Afghanistan will be a problem for Mr Biden's legacy, though it may not necessarily be a problem for Democrats in 2022. While most Americans wanted to end the so-called "forever wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq, the scenes from the Kabul airport have been both heart-rending and deeply embarrassing.

Republicans may seek to exploit this disaster, but it will not serve them well to do so. They have no foreign policy successes to tout and by the time November 2022 arrives, the focus of voters is likely to be on domestic concerns such as the economy, the lingering pandemic and issues of racial and political inequities. Despite Republican efforts to make the election a referendum on Mr Biden, he is not as polarising a figure as his predecessor.

Hanging over the Republicans' heads, like a dark ominous cloud, is the diminishing but still potent legacy of Donald Trump and Trumpism. This will remain a decisive factor both within the party as well as in contests between Republicans and Democrats.

By the fall of 2022, if the pandemic is under control, the economy is growing, and the expenditures on infrastructure have passed Congress and are being implemented and creating jobs across the US, the election will be about these issues. For American voters, Afghanistan will remain only as a bitter but fading memory.

Published: August 24th 2021, 4:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National