Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.
When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary . The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.
The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.
Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:
“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”
With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?
Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?
The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.
The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’
There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.
The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.
The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?
The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.
The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry
Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?
Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy” and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.
The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.
It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.
It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.
From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”
Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.
At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.
The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.
The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.
Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.
It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nation–build? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.
But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.
The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble
The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to , at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.
They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.
Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.