At least, I hope and pray it will be his biggest mistake. We — by which I mean the United States, and the world that depends on it — can’t afford any bigger ones.
That takes a lot of explanation, more than I have time to address tonight, but let me at least get started.
It’s complicated, which is why, in these last few months, when I’ve had so little time to blog, I’ve not addressed the topic. Especially since I knew nothing I could say would change anything — not my readers’ minds, and certainly not the president’s course of action. But the Taliban, with its rough impatience to oppress the country again, wasn’t polite enough to allow me to wait any longer. So, this being an opinion blog, I need to express some opinions now.
As y’all know, I am profoundly grateful that Joe Biden is our president. Not only did he save our country from Donald Trump by winning the election, he has taking office done a great many impressive things. Good things.
But there’s nobody I agree with on everything, and sometimes I disagree profoundly with even the best leaders, people I admire greatly.
In the past couple of years, since he launched his campaign in 2019, Joe Biden has done two things I disagreed with to that extent. The first was at the very start of the campaign, when he dropped his support for the Hyde Amendment. No, I don’t want to have another argument with any of y’all about abortion. But I mention it just to set up what I want to say about Afghanistan.
As I understand it, Biden abandoned what he believed about the Hyde Amendment because it seemed impossible, to him and his staff, for him to obtain the Democratic nomination without doing so. Democrats, who tend to congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness, have zero tolerance for anyone who opposes any facet of the party’s doctrinaire position on abortion. If he had held on to his principled position, he would not have become the Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump would still be president of the United States.
No one could have removed Trump from office except the right Democratic nominee. And Joe had lost the argument within the Democratic Party on the Hyde Amendment decades ago. A mere senator could get away with that. But not the party’s presidential nominee.
Similarly, those of us who believe the United States needed to stay in Afghanistan in order to prevent the Taliban from retaking the country lost our argument long, long ago. And not just in one party. The hordes of those who disagreed marched upon us from the left and right both, and overwhelmed us politically long before Joe became president. I suppose he decided he had no choice on Afghanistan in light of that, so he might as well get it out of the way to concentrate on all the other ambitious things he wanted to do. A simple matter of political pragmatism, like the change on the Hyde Amendment. LBJ badly wanted to accomplish so many things domestically, and hated having Vietnam on his hands. But he didn’t dare withdraw, and you see how he came out on that. Joe was avoiding that mistake. “Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man,” the president said today. “I will not do it in Afghanistan.”
In his earlier post, Bryan said his objection was tactical, not strategic. He’s not arguing we shouldn’t have left; he’s criticizing the way we did it. Well, my objection is strategic. Leaving was the wrong thing to do.
Note that I don’t disagree with Joe on the politics. As I said, our opponents across the spectrum “overwhelmed us politically” on this long ago. But that didn’t make us wrong. We are told that our venture in Afghanistan was a failure. It wasn’t. Note what I said above. I believe “the United States needed to stay in Afghanistan in order to prevent the Taliban from retaking the country.” And we did that, for 20 years. In perhaps the most fragmented, ungovernable (by Western notions of governance — stable administration, rule of law, etc.) large country in the world — or one that at least was in the running for the title. And it had been that way for centuries, if not millennia. (Don’t ask me to be more specific; I don’t claim to be a student of Afghan history going back to Alexander.)
The goal was not, in the phrase of those looking for a phrase that made our presence there seem as absurd as possible, to establish a “Jeffersonian democracy.” (I’m not sure I would embrace that as a goal even here. Madisonian, maybe.) We just needed it to be a place where the Taliban didn’t rule. Where the Taliban didn’t oppress the people, especially, to a shocking degree, the women and girls. And, from the purely practical American perspective, where the Taliban couldn’t provide a safe base for entities such as Al Qaeda.
Did our presence completely shut the Taliban out of power? No, they were always holding onto this or that piece of the country. But it was like that when the Taliban itself was the chief national power. Look up the Northern Alliance, for instance. Look up tribalism (we have Identity Politics; they have tribalism, with AK-47s). Afghanistan wasn’t a showplace for what the Taliban wanted any more than it would ever be for us.
But our presence there held them in check, kept them from sweeping in and doing whatever they could.
Our presence. Not our perfection. Not our 1945-style victory. Just our presence, which in and of itself was better, far better than our absence (ask those thousands of Afghans scrambling to get on one of the last rides out).
Not even our fighting. No U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since February of 2020. Just our presence.
And here’s the thing: If we’re going to have this big, strong military, the forces should be positioned where their presence does some good. As it did in Afghanistan. What good does it do to have the troops in, say, Georgia or North Carolina or Texas, where they just sit around and train. Why not have them where they do good just by being there? As they have, say, in Germany since 1945?
Of course, if you don’t believe we should have this big, strong military, well then I can’t possibly say anything that will make any sense to you. I, for one, believe it is essential that the world’s largest, richest liberal democracy have the strongest military forces, rather than ceding that position to, say, China — which would love to be in that position. If you don’t agree, well, perhaps you want to go read something else.
And as long as we have that military, why hide it away in places where the only good it does is provide an artificial boost to the local economy?
This, of course, is what John McCain was talking about when he said the thing that made people from the extreme left to the extremer right regard him as a lunatic, saying that we might need to stay in Iraq for 100 years, or as he said in 2015, we might need a permanent presence in Afghanistan:
INSKEEP: Is the United States headed toward a permanent presence, then, in Afghanistan?
MCCAIN: Oh, I think we are, just as we have a permanent presence in South Korea and in Japan and in Germany and other places where we’ve fought conflicts. That does not mean that we would continue to see casualties, but I am totally sure that if we pull everybody out to the degree as it’s presently planned, we will see the Iraq movie again. And that is the place, I would remind you, where the 9/11 attacks were inaugurated….
I don’t know why people think that was crazy. It makes perfectly calm, reassuring sense to me. We’re not talking about, to use another favorite phrase of the “let’s get out” contingent, a “forever war.” We’re simply talking about a presence. One that might not be permanent, but let’s just call it that to keep the kids in the back seat from saying, “Are we there yet?” every five minutes.
After Bryan wrote his post earlier, he and I had a brief discussion via text. In that context, he agreed with me to this extent: “I think we should have kept a presence in Afghanistan, but my group of folks lost that argument.”
Maybe you lost the argument, but you’re not commander in chief.
If I were commander in chief, and people wanted to abandon Afghanistan (which I agree they do want), they’d have to remove me from office to get it done.
I like to make dramatic statements like that, but I do have that kind of stubborn streak. I’d rather fail at many other things than hand over to the Taliban all those people who put their lives on the line to help us help their country — not to mention every single woman and girl in the country. That’s something I couldn’t live with, if I had the power to stop it. And if I lost my job for refusing to go along, well, I’ve lost jobs before.
What worries me is that so much more than Afghanistan is at stake. Joe Biden probably has no more important international task than restoring trust in the United States after the nightmare of the past four years. This collapse in Afghanistan does serious damage on that front. And as I suggested in my first graf above, the world can’t really afford that kind of lack of confidence in America.
I could go along and say Trump put Biden in this spot. He made an agreement that would have had us out in May; Joe at least delayed that. Some make that argument, while at the same time noting, as did Bryan, that there were better ways to do this.
The president — my president, I’m still proud to say — gave a good speech today about all of this. I admired it, mostly. And I agree with him on this: “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”
But in my book, this wasn’t a good time, either…
He gave a good speech…