This much we know: President Biden’s decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan is overwhelmingly popular. It’s also strongly bipartisan in a way very few things are these days. Biden is effectively completing the task his two predecessors as president from opposite parties — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — sought to set in motion, with less success. Trump has even offered rare praise for Biden’s decision.
But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it isn’t dicey. There are reasons Obama and Trump fell short on their proposed withdrawals, after all. And new and extraordinary comments Wednesday from the president that came before that trio drove that home.
George W. Bush has generally avoided weighing in on his successors, including Trump. But while speaking to Deutsche Welle in Germany, he had some rather unvarnished thoughts on the pullout from Afghanistan, a war he launched after 9/11.
Bush flatly agreed that it “a mistake” and warned of looming tragedies and atrocities.
“I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm,” Bush said. He also mentioned interpreters who worked with Americans and allied forces who could now be in dire straits. “They’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart.”
Bush even said he believed German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with him about the folly of the withdrawal.
That Bush is going there is significant. He steered clear of directly criticizing Trump by name, while delivering a 2017 speech that was unmistakably targeted at the then-president. He also said he didn’t vote for Trump. But other than that, he was more hands-off. Biden also consulted him about the withdrawal plan, which make Bush’s comments particularly striking. After those conversations, a Bush spokesman declined to comment in detail; that’s no longer the Bush team’s line, it seems.
As for the why: There is no question Bush’s reputation is at stake here. Biden hasn’t really tried to put a good face on the withdrawal, essentially acknowledging that things aren’t great but that our continued presence isn’t likely to make them better — or at least be worth the cost. It’s hardly a triumphant withdrawal.
It also comes with the inherent acknowledgment that things haven’t exactly panned out, after two decades, as well as was imagined or promised at the beginning. By planting this flag, Bush allows himself to argue that perhaps things might have indeed turned out better, but that the will just wasn’t there.
That’s the more cynical and strategic explanation, of course. There is no doubt that Bush, a hawk in a country and even a party that have moved steadily away from hawkish foreign policy and “nation-building,” finds himself increasingly outnumbered. But there’s a reason he launched these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: because he believed in them.
Regardless of which weighs more heavily, though, that doesn’t change the practical implications. And those are that there is real risk in this pullout. It has become clear in recent weeks that the withdrawal is paving the way for the Taliban to potentially overtake the central government, perhaps in relatively short order.
Should that happen, Biden will be confronted with difficult decisions about what to do then, as well as questions about whether this was handled appropriately. Those who support the withdrawal don’t want to hear that and will argue that nothing could be done to avoid that, short of an endless war. But it won’t change the fact that Biden will have to account for the results.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot this week compared that aftermath to the long-running debate after the withdrawal from Vietnam:
After having invested so much for so long in Afghanistan, we cannot now escape responsibility for its fate. In 1975, a U.S. Army colonel famously told a North Vietnamese colonel, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield.” His counterpart responded, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
Indeed. Guerrillas prevail not by outfighting but by outlasting a more powerful foe. The Taliban has done just that. It has not yet defeated the government in Kabul, but it has already defeated the one in Washington. Let the recriminations and finger-pointing begin. If Vietnam is any indication, the Afghanistan “blame game” could roil U.S. politics for decades to come.
If we’re to analyze Biden’s comments, he seems to understand the peril that lies ahead. Two weeks ago, he became irritated while being pressed on the situation, saying he’d prefer to discuss “happy things” ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend. Last week, he offered a more full-throated defense, saying there was essentially nothing to be gained by staying, thanks to the intractable problems in the country.
“Let me ask those who want us to stay: How many more — how many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons — are you willing to risk?” Biden said. “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”
At this point, it seems most Americans generally agree with that. But that’s with the headlines from Afghanistan largely disappearing from their news in recent years. What happens if there is indeed a civil war? What happens if the atrocities Bush warned of begin to surface, including ones involving women, children and those who assisted Americans in the two-decade war? Will the Biden administration be viewed as having done enough to protect them before withdrawal? (The Biden administration will begin evacuating them later this month, we learned this afternoon.)
Bush has now laid a marker in that potential after-action debate — albeit after the withdrawal was already nearly complete. He also benefits from arguing against a hypothetical unknown of what would have happened if we had stayed.
But the fact that he’s sought to make this argument, however self-serving and academic at this point, reinforces how this might not be such a consensus issue moving forward — and how it almost certainly won’t be a simple one. / Washington Post