An Instagram meme I encountered last week read: “If you feel useless, just remember the USA took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.”
Truer words are rarely spoken. But the extent to which the United States, specifically President Joe Biden, is to blame for overseeing the end of our ugly Afghanistan campaign on Monday, Aug. 30, will be debated for years to come.
For context: Acting on public pressure after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. under President George W. Bush embarked on a military campaign to overthrow the Islamic fundamentalists (the Taliban) leading Afghanistan. America achieved this goal in December 2001, but its effort to prop up the Afghan National Security Forces and impose democracy upon another country went poorly. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both tried and failed to end U.S. involvement in the ensuing Afghan civil war.
So when Biden announced back in April that he was committed to pulling the troops out by Sept. 11, just about everyone in America not associated with the warmongering foreign policy establishment was all in. As the 9/11 deadline lurched closer, Biden publicly maintained that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “not inevitable” upon a U.S. withdrawal.
That was on July 8. Two weeks later on July 22, U.S. Army General Mark Milley echoed the president’s sentiment, stating that the fall of Afghanistan was “not a foregone conclusion.” Of course, both men were wrong — Taliban forces claimed control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, on Aug. 15. The insurgents made staggering progress, capturing 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals in a 10-day period.
Predictably, Republicans have pounced all over Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. The GOP, which largely turned away from interventionism during Trump’s presidency, has generally approved of Biden’s decision to bring troops home. However, its members were displeased with the poorly organized pullout, which essentially abandoned the American citizens and pro-America Afghan interpreters trapped behind Taliban lines.
For example, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Fox News on Aug. 17 that Biden had committed a “strategic catastrophe,” and that he had been too focused on meeting the “political symbolism” of his Sept. 11 withdrawal date.
Some Democrats have even condemned Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. My home district’s congresswoman, Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), said last week that the situation was “as far from orderly as it could possibly be.”
Of course, this is not the spin we have received from the White House. Biden has stubbornly defended his actions, even implying that the “withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021” plan he inherited from Trump left his hands tied — even though his administration actually revised Trump’s withdrawal plans. No one should buy this, unless they’re also willing to blame Eisenhower for JFK’s failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Though most Americans prioritize domestic issues over foreign policy ones, such an illusion of presidential incompetence could pose a serious problem for Democrats in two major elections this fall: gubernatorial races in California and Virginia.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is facing a rare recall election on Sept. 14, spurred by widespread opposition to his tight COVID-19 restrictions and slow vaccine rollout. Though Newsom has recently gained some ground, most polls within the last month have shown that voters are split on ousting him. Vice President Kamala Harris, a California native, has even floated the idea of heading home to campaign for Newsom, a sign of just how bad things have gotten for Democrats in this deep-blue state.
In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is running for a non-consecutive second term against businessman Glenn Youngkin (R). McAuliffe has closely associated himself with Biden for years, and the two men held several rallies together earlier this year. Like in California, most polls seem to favor McAuliffe, but a Trafalgar poll released Tuesday found the candidates virtually tied.
So what does this all mean? I personally find it unlikely that either McAuliffe or Newsom will lose at this moment, but I would have said differently if pressed two weeks ago — when the shock of “Biden’s Saigon” was still fresh in Americans’ minds. It is highly possible that two weeks from now, I will feel this way again.
In his Aug. 16 speech on Afghanistan (his first since the fall of Kabul) Biden gave a nod to Harry Truman by telling the nation that “the buck stops with me.” No more “forever wars” at the expense of American lives and taxpayer funds, Biden vowed.
Biden should recognize that the buck has already been passed to the American electorate. This fall’s elections will act as an important referendum on our country’s political direction ahead of next year’s midterms. It also gives a select group of key voters a chance to show Biden why his approval ratings have fallen off significantly in recent weeks.