Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to end America’s longest war, but his presidency risks being remembered instead for presiding over the violent overthrow of Afghanistan’s government by the Taliban.
Republicans have sought to capitalise on what is emerging as the biggest setback of Biden’s presidency with an eye on elections next year in which control of Congress is at stake.
“President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, on Thursday. McConnell said the Taliban’s advance raised the spectre of Islamists celebrating the 20th anniversary of September 11 by “burning down our Embassy in Kabul”.
Fellow Republican Lindsey Graham tweeted a warning: “It will only be a matter of time before our homeland is again threatened from Afghanistan.”
The cover of The New York Post, a conservative tabloid, put it more simply: “Biden’s Saigon,” ran the headline. “We abandon women to Taliban savagery.”
The Pentagon on Thursday said it would send 3,000 troops, including aircraft that could fly personnel out of the Afghan capital, and a back-up brigade of 3,500 soldiers to Kuwait in case the security situation deteriorates further.
Biden, who has long opposed nation-building missions and the troop surge ordered under the Obama administration, has said US soldiers risked being attacked if they stayed beyond the deadline negotiated under former president Donald Trump.
A Democratic aide said many Republicans who supported drawdown under the Trump administration were now simply playing politics and “trying to jam up the president”.
US officials argue the fall of Kabul could still be averted and are holding talks with the Taliban in Doha, despite rapidly worsening assessments from security officials.
“The president is firmly focused on how we can continue to execute an orderly drawdown and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary. “He does not regret his decision.”
So far, Biden appears not to have haemorrhaged domestic political support from his own side over the disaster. Although some pro-national security Democrats initially appeared to break ranks, with New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen saying she was “very disappointed” by the withdrawal, none of her colleagues have been publicly critical this past week.
One state department official deleted a Friday morning tweet saying she woke up with a “heavy heart, thinking about all the Afghan women and girls I worked with during my time in Kabul”. She said the US was powerless to protect them and that they stood to lose everything. The state department told the Financial Times she deleted the tweet “on her own volition”.
The Washington Post spoke for many left-leaning critics when it ran an op-ed on Thursday entitled: “Afghan lives ruined or lost will be part of Biden’s legacy.”
Critics have taken aim at the administration over the speed of its withdrawal, and over its refusal to use the word “evacuation” to describe the removal of embassy staff under the protection of infantry battalions that officials say could involve multiple flights a day.
They also say the US risks being shown to be an unreliable ally, despite Biden’s boast that “America is back”.
“History may hold president Joe Biden and his administration personally responsible if the worst comes to pass,” John Allen, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said in an opinion piece on Friday.
Human rights defenders, including some in the Biden administration, have warned Taliban atrocities could amount to war crimes and that women and girls face a horrific fate under the return of ultraconservative Islamist rule should the Taliban take control.
“[I]t’s easy to wonder if history will blame the US for the human rights and humanitarian disaster there,” said Andrea Prasow at Human Rights Watch. She added that many parties were to blame, but that the US had committed human rights abuses of its own and had rarely put the interests of the Afghan people first.
Security experts also argue that a Taliban victory could enable the very jihadi threat against the US that the 2001 American invasion was intended to head off.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has blamed the Trump administration for tying its hands, the Afghan security forces for failing to fight, and the Taliban for failing to negotiate.
Biden cited the near-collapse of al-Qaeda, which conducted the September 11 attacks, for his decision to withdraw. But although a UN report in June said al-Qaeda numbers had dropped to a maximum of 500, it said the group retained extensive ties with the Taliban and was present in 15 Afghan provinces.
“[I]f the Taliban does have success they’re likely to have al-Qaeda operating with them,” a US official told the FT.
Experts say the jihadi threat would most immediately be felt in the region, in countries including Pakistan and India, before al-Qaeda or the local branch of Isis — sworn enemies of the Taliban who have a foothold in eastern Afghanistan — could set their sights on the US.
“There will be a backlash coming to Pakistan,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political scientist in Lahore. “If there is a Taliban government in Kabul, that will embolden hardline Islamic groups in Pakistan.”
Officials in India also fear the Taliban’s success could increase militant activity in Kashmir, as happened when the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan in the late-1990s.
Officials believe Biden’s policy of withdrawal helped propel him to victory in 2020, and domestic support for his decision to pull out after more than 2,400 US deaths and 20,000 wounded still runs high.
Bipartisan public support has tapered slightly as the Taliban has gained in strength. Polling from Politico-Morning Consult pored over by the White House showed support for his decision was down to 59 per cent last month from 69 per cent in April.
Taliban victories, a humiliating exit, further atrocities and the fall of Kabul could further downgrade that support. And pollsters say a terrorist attack on US soil could change everything.
“The 2024 re-elect for Joe Biden could hinge on whether or not the
Taliban moves aggressively against the US during that time,” said
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, adding his approval rating among independents was on the wane.
Meanwhile, there is still strong bipartisan opposition to overseas interventions.
“Afghanistan is something that is going to have a lot of salience for elites,” said Sean McElwee from Democratic pollster Data for Progress. “But it is not going to be a sort of high priority for your average voter.”
Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
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