President Biden has taken a lot of stick over Afghanistan, some of it justified. From Tony Blair to the Tory back-benches, in Parliament and on the BBC, we have been treated to days of passionate denunciation of American withdrawal – announced, of course, long before the current rush to blame. A miasma of unreality and theatricality rose from all the understandable political emotion and anguish.
It is as if in Clausewitz’s account of the nature of war, his mixture of emotion, chance and rational calculation, the rational can simply be ignored. “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”, Clausewitz wrote – to balance his war as ‘politics by another means’. The Taliban applied his lesson successfully.
From Trump to Biden, as a consequence of chains of policies, decisions, and mission-creep, and as a result of a successful insurgency against a corrupt government and foreign invaders, the US was finally forced to submit to the Taliban’s will, negotiating and implementing its own exit from Afghanistan. It is not Biden’s decision that will determine the outcome for thousands of fleeing Afghans seeking but the Taliban’s.
According to Aristotle, a dramatic tragedy needs to obey the three unities of place, time and action. Reacting to the retreat into Kabul airport, the flights and chaos of the last week in and around it, we find political leaders playing their parts in such a tragedy.
The G7, calling for the USA to extend the withdrawal time to allow more Afghans to escape, pitted NATO members against an American President, a President who rationally calculated that this course of action would escalate into a disastrous fire-fight with the Taliban lobbing mortars into the airport and fierce ground assaults on US forces trying to hold a perimeter (as Daniel Johnson indicates TheArticle 25/08). It is and was a tragic dilemma. But it was Biden who behaved like a rational statesman and refused.
It is perfectly understandable that denial and raw emotion prompted the positions taken up by MPs who had served in Afghanistan and played military roles in the tragedy. But it is not obvious why so many others took the opportunity to scapegoat Biden. Did they seriously think that more troops flown into Kabul airport would have kept it open for flights without it becoming a modern Alamo? Did they advocate a position they knew would be untenable to put pressure on the Taliban? Were they just ‘virtue signalling’, or in the case of Britain just trying to ‘punch above its weight’? And doesn’t the appalling ISIS terrorist atrocity at Kabul airport suggest at least one area of common concern between NATO and the Taliban that will require cooperation?
Perhaps the Biden-bashing sprang from deeper causes than his misjudging the resolve to fight of the Afghan National Army who in many instances fled the Taliban without firing a shot, or even his failure to foresee the corrupt government would collapse like the proverbial house of cards. Given the lack of clear and up-to-date intelligence from rural areas, a hasty withdrawal was inevitable.
The CIA can claim to have presented the Commander in Chief with sudden collapse as one of several possible scenarios depending on the amount of American force available on the ground and in the air.
But in a matter of a week or two abandoning a vast armoury of US military equipment?
Apart from Canada, all the loudly lamenting G7 members have at some point passed through a significant period of imperial ambition, and some have experienced imperial grandeur. Their dream of defying the victorious Taliban seems a post-imperial fantasy. Perhaps these Prime Ministers and Presidents still believe in some inviolable right to order the world and export Western values, and couldn’t recognise their own hubris and its consequences. Or perhaps we were watching a – deflected – fear of a US isolationism that long preceded Biden.
It is not as if US isolationism versus intervention was a new issue. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff then US Secretary of State, and Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defence, along with Tony Blair and his chief of staff in the UK, Jonathan Powell, had debated the issue before 9/11 including drawing up criteria such interventions must meet.
Tony Blair’s wide-ranging 24 April 1999 speech in Chicago after the atrocities in Kosovo – justifying intervention and bombing – was a significant contribution. There was also the UN World Summit in 2005 on ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ that defined circumstances that required international intervention, looking back on the failure of any world power to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blair, in a recent speech opposing American withdrawal called Biden’s use of the slogan ‘forever wars’ as ‘imbecilic’. But didn’t Biden’s decision to leave by 31 August comply with the very criteria for military action which Blair had proposed in his Chicago speech? In Chicago he had said “Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?” Breaking the agreement to leave by the end of the month concluded with the Taliban would have been neither sensible nor prudent. It could not have succeeded without massive military re-engagement and loss of life.
The aura of unreality surrounding this widespread denunciation of Biden, the assumption that America has only to say the word and the date of the exit could be changed, may spring from elsewhere: delayed recognition that US isolationism is here to stay, or fear that the USA was changing its strategic priorities, turning its back on Europe to concentrate on China. Nothing new here. Blair’s Chicago speech ended: “I say to you: never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism.
The world cannot afford it. Stay a country, outward-looking, with the vision and imagination that is your nature. And realise that in Britain you have a friend and an ally that will stand with you, work with you, fashion with you the design of a future built on peace and prosperity for all, which is the only dream that makes humanity worth preserving”. There was surely some element of fear this was a fading dream lurking behind the attacks on Biden for his failure to consult with his allies.
Some clear and specific reassurances from the American President, if not some apology and explanation for the lack of consultation with his NATO allies, are long overdue. We must now respond to the consequences of the change in US priorities. But like COVID we are going to have to live with the Taliban More tragically, so are the Afghan people.
a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University,