The steep cost of mishandling our withdrawal from Afghanistan

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan in the East Room of The White House on Aug. 16. Oliver Contreras/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM/TNS

In March 1975, an American president was fighting to save an American ally from being overrun by an implacable enemy. The North Vietnamese Army, mounting a massive conventional strike on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, was plunging closer to Saigon.

Gerald Ford urged the Democratic congressional majority to authorize military aid to South Vietnam. His pleas were met with intransigence and disdain. An ally collapsed, countless refugees were forced into the sea, murder reigned throughout South Vietnam and “re-education” camps became a way of life.

One of those standing in the way of Ford’s attempt to save our friends was a new senator from Delaware named Joseph Robinette Biden. Sound familiar?

Now we have fresh confirmation of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s warning that Biden has been on the wrong side of every major national security issue for over 40 years (he even opposed the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden). The benefit, though, of having Biden in the Senate and the vice presidency was that he never had his hands on the levers of kinetic power — until now.

The president whom the mainstream media heralded as the return of the “Washington professional” — the one who would restore America’s standing abroad — is presiding over the most precipitous decline in American power and prestige in our history. It took Biden fewer than seven months to accomplish what Jimmy Carter couldn’t do in four years: make America an object of derision.

A few weeks ago, the president said that his decision to order a total withdrawal from Afghanistan would be “not at all comparable” to the end in Vietnam. In a way, he’s right. It’s worse.

It’s a catastrophe of leadership and planning. Withdrawal was formally announced in the middle of the Taliban fighting season, not the winter months when the Taliban retreat to their cold-weather sanctuaries. The White House withdrew American air power that would have devastated Taliban forces moving en masse in the open. Military and intelligence advice was ignored.

In 1975, American sailors were pushing American helicopters off the decks of carriers in the South China Sea because the ships couldn’t handle the flood of the aircraft. This administration simply handed our bases and military equipment over to the theocratic fanatics. Desperate Americans immediately began fleeing, filling the Kabul airfield with planes trying to get out. Tens of thousands of Afghans who cast their lot with the U.S. are left to fend for themselves.

Where the Vietnam parallel is most apt is the fate of the helpless Afghans. The mass rapes of young girls have started. Reports are coming in of beheadings of those who oppose the Taliban, and it will only get worse. The cost in human lives will be staggering.

The response from the White House? A warning to the Taliban that they will not be welcome at the United Nations or other world bodies if they mistreat their people. Roman farce becomes Greek tragedy.

We will be reaping the whirlwind for decades.

The difference between 1975 and 2021 is that the Soviet Union was a one-dimensional threat with a sclerotic leadership, unable to contest the United States on the economic and political front. That is not the case today. We had time to recover from Vietnam — even time to recover from Jimmy Carter. We may not be that lucky this time around.

Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran are watching. China has already warned Taiwan that it can’t count on the United States to rescue it from the Peoples’ Liberation Army and Navy. Our allies in London, Canberra and Paris are bewildered.

Afghanistan is the crowning glory for an administration that believes its only mission is to manage American decline.

Retreat also applies to the Middle East where Arab states in 2020 buried age-old animosities toward Israel to stand together against the mullahs in Tehran. Throwing away the years of progress encapsulated by the Abraham Accords, the Biden White House has returned to the Obama-era appeasement of Iran and its proxies.

Even in Europe, the message is one that America is falling back. The Trump administration provided advanced anti-tank weapons to Ukraine after Obama refused to do so for years. The Biden administration unilaterally choked off the flow of military supplies to Ukraine, in the hope that Moscow would reciprocate. Instead, Putin has moved tens of thousands of troops to the border opposite Ukraine and continues to wage war on the cyber commons vital to American security.

All of this, and we are not a year into this presidency. America has suffered an incalculable humiliation. The humbling of a great power is worse than a defeat on the battlefield.

At least Jimmy Carter was honest enough to reverse course when he realized he was wrong. Don’t count on a similar epiphany from the current occupant of the White House.

A former secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert L. Wilkie is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

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(2) comments

KRobbins

I see Wilkie has no blame for the Bush Administration that had over 7 years to get Afghanistan finished. He worked in that administration that was so full of hubris because of how well the Afghanistan war was going that they turned towards Iraq, sure that it would be a cakewalk. And after that, with troops to the east and west of it they would invade Iran because “real men go to Tehran.”

Biden may not have done a perfect because there may not have been a good way to end it. Wilkie was part of making the problem in the first place, tho.

rdsouth

The only smart thing to do with Afghanistan is leave it. The Taliban was always going to take over when America left. The only choices were to stay forever or leave, thus giving the Taliban whatever we put there (sooner or later). So why did we put so much there? When I was there in 2011 there was already much public talk about leaving, yet all kinds of big stuff was being built. Huge investments. Whose fault is the fact that those things were given to the Taliban, the people who put them there or the guy who said it's time to stop the madness. What were all those Americans doing in Afghanistan anyway? Were they contractors of some kind? Biden may have been wrong before, most of us have, but on this one he was spot on. No need to be elegant about it. Just split.

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