I am not somebody to “bothside” things, but in the trainwreck that is Afghanistan right now, no supporter of Biden or Trump has the moral standing to point the finger at the other.
We are witnessing the consequences of a long chain of events that started with the George W. Bush hubris of initiating a second war in Iraq while the US was knee-deep in “nation-building” in Afghanistan. Like the propagandist who ends up believing their own lies, the USA never committed the resources needed to truly build state capacity but kept touting the horn of “success” in its underfunded stability operation missions. With an unachievable goal in front of them, American forces did the best they could for 20 years at the Graveyard of Empires.
During the Trump administration, with the situation in the terrain rapidly deteriorating, Pompeo signed with the Taliban the conditions for retreat in Doha in 2020. The Trumpian reduction in forces was dramatic, a true Chamberlainesque “peace for our time!” event, and it played a pivotal role in the incapacity of the US to maintain control in one territory in particular: Bagram Air Base. As part of the Trump withdrawal agreement, Bagram entered Afghan government control in July 2021. Without Bagram, the capacity of the US to conduct air operations around Kabul was reduced to almost zero. Biden handed it back to the Afghan armed forces, continuing in the same vector set by Trump. That was a critical bipartisan mistake.
When the dust settles, the story of the reconquering of Afghanistan by the Taliban will not be one of military prowess but one of political intrigue and betrayal. It is becoming clear that the Afghan Armed Forces didn’t “lose” Afghanistan in 14 days. You cannot lose what you did not defend. The mistake committed by the US was to trust that the institutions created after 20 years of expensive nation-building would hold after the scaffold was removed, despite knowing about the enormous structural flaws; to think that there was something other than an empty shell governing Kabul that could negotiate a dignified power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. We may have hollowed those institutions by removing key logistic and intelligence elements of military decision-making with our reduction of forces, but had there been an intrinsically strong Afghan military, this would have been a long and bloody civil war. It wasn’t. The portcullis was lifted from the inside.
Why are we surprised? Poorly treated and heavily corrupt, history has told us that military forces can “melt” at the first sign of confrontation under those conditions.
Much has been said about the fact that the Afghan armed forces have indeed suffered most of the casualties of the conflict in the last 20 years, and that is true, but it would be a mistake to confuse asymmetric conflict with actual battle line combat. When called to hold positions, nobody was there to answer the call, and they were not there because their commanders had already negotiated the surrender.
In the middle of this capitulation, the US was caught with its pants down, with no airlift capacity and with no local support from the satellite government that ended up playing the role of an American Maginot line. In this case, though, it was not Erwin Rommel’s Ghost division crossing the Meuse river. Corruption and fear, not panzers, were the tools of this blitzkrieg. Republicans and Democrats alike believed the lie they kept telling themselves about a functional set of institutions all knew defective and corrupt.
The best aphorism to understand what happened is not Rommel’s famous “swift offensive being the sword and the shield” but that of Mexican drug cartels: “silver or lead.” The Taliban offered to the Afghan military commanders the same choice offered by Trafficking Organizations to police forces in Latin America: accept my rules (and maybe even get some money in the process) or die. We know what they selected.
As I write these lines, important voices in America ask for the recapture of Bagram Air Base. It would make sense. In military affairs, the problem is that you may get a saying on how a confrontation begins, but not how it ends. Recapturing a military base would drag America back into a military confrontation, the exact opposite of what is desired by public opinion, and by the current and past administrations alike.
British and French forces are rumored to be deployed inside Kabul, escorting their nationals to the airport. Their actions will place more pressure on American forces to do the same with, again, the same potential consequence of escalating the conflict.
The immigration restrictionists that dominated the Trump White House made processing Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans a living hell in a deliberate effort to make sure that allies of the US would have a hard time relocating to US territory. They also did everything in their power to restrict asylum claims. In fact, Trumpians like Tucker Carlson keep doing it right now, in the midst of this conflict.
The Biden administration did not demonstrate any drive to change that. Like the European travel ban or the tariffs of Trump’s trade war, the democratic administration has toned down the rhetoric but kept the substance of their predecessor’s America First isolationist policies. This delay in changing Trumpian asylum and refugees policies was another reason why they were utterly unprepared to deal with the consequences of a rapid collapse.
The US political ecosystem would be in a better position if we could avoid extreme partisanship in every critical policy choice. This is true in general but, in the case of the crisis in Afghanistan, it is paramount if only for one simple reason: unlike many other policy spaces where the positions of the Republican and Democratic parties are polarized and opposed, in Afghanistan, the whole political elite acted with unity of purpose: the vote to invade was almost unanimous, the nation-building operations sustained by many years of Democratic and Republican ruling and the exit conditions designed by Trump in Doha and carried by Biden.
Twenty years of nation-building were a bipartisan falsifiable hypothesis. Like building a dam, it is only when the pressure mounts that you know if the structure will resist or it will collapse and, like the flash flooding after a dam breach, the failures that produced the rapid downfall of the Afghan government have their root causes deep in the bipartisan design of that critical, crumpled infrastructure. Underestimating the level of decomposition is something that both Trump and Biden administrations share in common too.