Despite criticism, Biden is on firm footing

It is the US handling of the Afghanistan exit that has been panned – not Biden's decision to leave

US President Joe Biden responds to questions about the ongoing US military evacuations of US citizens and vulnerable Afghans, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. AFP
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Across the US, flags are at half-mast, honouring the fourteen US military personnel who were killed in an ISIS suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport, along with many more Afghans.

The anguish sums up the entire experience that US President Joe Biden is determined to end with his unhesitating decision to remove US forces from Afghanistan, and bring to a close the longest war in the country's history.

Americans are a proud and martial people. They do not like to be informed that one of their overseas adventures has, unsurprisingly, failed. It is, after all, a country that has revelled in deluding itself that it "never lost a war," at least until Vietnam, though that was never true. though that was never true.

ISIS’s mass murder at the airport and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should be viewed through three partially overlapping frameworks.

At the human register, it is a catastrophe. Strategically, it is a potentially risky gamble that will have to prove itself in due course. Politically, it seems like a good bet for Mr Biden

The tragedy is hard to overstate. Thousands of Afghans who aided US, Nato and other now-disfavoured forces will inevitably be left behind in the chaos and may well be harmed or even killed.

From this perspective, it would have been much better to have begun with a mass human exodus mission before any major military drawdown. Mr Biden insists that the Afghan government at the time begged him not to do that for fear of sparking a panic. Apparently, they were well aware how brittle their regime was, but Washington made a whopping mistake by acceding.

Strategically, Mr Biden is on more solid ground. No one knows what the future holds, but the idea that a few thousand US troops, backed by air power, could have prevented the Taliban from capturing Afghan cities into the foreseeable future seems very implausible. If the US had stayed engaged, it surely would have been drawn ever-deeper into an intensifying war.

The biggest political threats to Mr Biden and his allies have nothing to do with foreign policy or Afghanistan

Politically, Mr Biden is on his firmest footing. Criticisms are mainly based on the Biden administration's handling of the exit but, crucially, not the decision to leave.

Despite angry denunciations by former US President Donald Trump and his allies, Mr Biden is, in fact, implementing Mr Trump's own agreement with the Taliban. Mr Biden actually extended Mr Trump’s deadline a little bit.

It is highly unlikely that a second Trump administration would have handled the situation any better, to put it kindly. And it is almost impossible to imagine him welcoming thousands of Afghan refugees to the US.

One of the few things Mr Trump and Mr Biden agree about is that most Americans want to leave Afghanistan and that they are not terribly particular about the details.

Biden vows retaliation for Kabul attacks: 'We will hunt you down and make you pay'

Biden vows retaliation for Kabul attacks: 'We will hunt you down and make you pay'

Even though the oldest US soldier killed at the airport was just 31, and at least two were younger than the Afghanistan mission itself, the terrible poignancy will only go so far politically.

And how will this all influence next year's congressional midterm elections, or Mr Biden's reelection chances in 2024, if he runs again?

Probably not much, if at all. It could even help him.

The cold, hard, political fact is that while Americans in general are deeply moved at the human level, and have very mixed feelings about the exit from Afghanistan, none of this is a major consideration in shaping midterm and general election votes.

Mr Biden will be heavily criticised, but he will also claim to have been the first leader in 20 years to have had the guts to rip off the bandage and finally end a pointless and quixotic campaign to reshape Afghan society.

That will resonate with many war-weary Americans.

And unlike in the earliest days of the exit crisis, he can now point to the extraction of at least 120,000 refugees, the overwhelming majority not US citizens, under very difficult conditions.

Indeed, the biggest political threats to Mr Biden and his allies have nothing to do with foreign policy or Afghanistan.

He is in a good deal of trouble, but mainly because of economic concerns tied to inflation and the heavy impact of the Delta variant of the coronavirus pandemic, which is hitting Republican-ruled states, with very low vaccination rates and no real mitigation mandates, particularly hard. Yet, as president, Mr Biden may be punished for the irresponsible actions of many Republican governors.

The US political calendar is effectively on hold during August and will resume after the first week of September and US Labour Day.

At that point, there will be a massive effort to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a separate and vast Democrats-only infrastructure package, and some form of voting access protection.

Just one of these would count as a significant success, especially given the incredibly tight margins in Congress and the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill Mr Biden signed in March.

Americans are looking at the Afghanistan tragedy primarily through the prism of emotions, not politics. Those emotions are, however, incredibly powerful.

They include, for many Americans, despair at the inability of the country to accomplish the impossible, but widely endorsed, project it undertook in 2002 to reshape Afghan society.

There is also considerable anger about the futility of the deaths and suffering of Americans and their Afghan allies over the past 20 years, and the present failure to rescue many of those heroic allies.

Such reflections induce powerful feelings of individual and collective guilt. But they compete with less widespread but extant contemptuous impressions of Afghans as unsalvageable or ungrateful wretches.

There is also tremendous sadness at recent losses, especially from the airport bombing, and for those facing possible death at the hands of the Taliban.

But, above all, most Americans – especially those who were not personally connected to the war – will primarily be experiencing relief that the “endless” war is finally over.

Critics charge that either the Taliban or, if they lose control of the situation, some even more extreme successor like ISIS, will once again make Afghanistan a hub of global terrorism, and therefore draw the US right back into the fray.

But most Americans don't anticipate that right now.

So, Mr Biden is unlikely to be politically hurt, and may even be bolstered, by his decision to rip off the bandage and finally end the longest war in US history.

Follow the latest updates on Afghanistan here

Published: August 29, 2021, 2:30 PM