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A double-strike terror attack at Kabul’s airport, apparently by Isis, has reportedly killed at least 60 people, including as many as 12 US troops and inuring up to 140, including some American soldiers.
Once again a US president is scrambled to the White House situation room, trying to get a grip on the chaos unfolding, even as the Pentagon admits it is bracing for further attacks. And Joe Biden, adamant no more US lives be lost in Afghanistan during his watch, must be watching on in horror as fresh American blood is spilled.
There is an old adage in the military that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, meaning that no matter the amount of planning and preparation one does, it cannot anticipate the impact of real-time events.
The adage applies to politics too.
Joe Biden campaigned for the US presidency vowing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.
The deal signed with the Taliban in February 2020 was brokered by the administration of Donald Trump. But Biden had voiced his desire to get US troops out of there since at least 2009, and he went along with Trump’s deal, and agreed to stick more or less to the timetable set for the last 2,400 troops to come home.
It was a policy that the majority of Americans, perhaps as many as 70 per cent, supported. The only voices arguing for the continuation of a US military presence in Afghanistan after 20 years were senior military commanders and the foreign policy establishment in DC.
Biden argued, probably correctly, that another year or even five years of America’s de-facto control of Afghanistan’s security would not turn the tide in a struggle with the Taliban, in truth a civil war that has played out for decades.
Yet, when Biden confirmed his plan to press ahead to withdraw those troops, he said it would be a dignified and measured departure.
“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it — we’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely. And we will do it in full coordination with our allies and partners, who now have more forces in Afghanistan than we do,” he said, speaking in the Treaty Room of the White House in April.
“And the Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.”
It is fair to say America’s departure from Afghanistan has been anything but responsible, deliberate or safe.
Rather, since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan on 15 August, having faced very little opposition from an Afghan army on which the US spent $80bn to train and equip, the world has watched a rush to flee the country, with thousands of foreigners and Afghan nationals pouring towards Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Suddenly, Biden’s approval rating over his handing of this has fallen to as little as 25 per cent, even as he insists there have been no mistakes and that his administration was not caught flat-footed.
Real and important questions are being asked about the level of planning and preparation. Even to his supporters, Biden’s answers must appear far from convincing.
One piece of intelligence the US and UK did get right was the threat posed by a hitherto little-known extremist outfit, Isis-K, a regional franchise of the notorious Islamist terror group that seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq in an attempt to create a “caliphate” before they were uprooted by the efforts of the Kurdish and American military. Hence the warning issued late on Wednesday to stay away from the airport.
Isis also hates the Taliban, and so in the latest twist of realpolitik surreality, US commanders in Kabul are cooperating with the Taliban to counter the threat from Isis-K. It is another example of “my enemy’s enemy being my friend”, even in the short-term.
All lives are equally valuable, each casualty of these attacks similarly tragic, but it is also true that the American public, and hence American leaders, care far more about American lives and casualties, especially when they are US soldiers killed overseas. It is those casualties, rather than those of people in nations the US has occupied, that tends to shift policy.
When people search for historical markers to draw comparisons to what is happening now, there are many they could turn to – not just the 1975 retreat from Saigon that marked the end of the Vietnam war, but also Ronald Reagan’s decision to pull out US troops from Lebanon after the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 Americans and 58 French military personnel.
Similarly, they could examine the 1993 Black Hawk Down raid that killed 18 American marines in Somalia, that led Bill Clinton to withdraw US forces from that east African nation the following year. It also probably persuaded the US to sit back, rather than trying to prevent the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Biden and his aides will also be thinking about the failed 1980 effort by US commandos dispatched by Jimmy Carter to rescue hostages held by Iranian militants. The failed raid only added to the woes of Carter, who was roundly defeated by Reagan in that year’s election.
And Democrats know all too well about the attacks and political point-scoring that can happen following events such as the 2012 killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.
Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton sat through hours of Republican-led questioning over what was deemed an intelligence failure, and Trump and his supporters used it to attack her during the 2016 election campaign.
Congress has already said it plans to investigate what has steadily turned into a tragedy in Kabul.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken might point proudly to the 82,000 people evacuated since the Taliban seized power.
But those are not the things people remember. Rather, they remember images of chaos and panic, of Afghans tumbling from the wheels of US aircraft, and smoke billowing in the aftermath of a terror attack at an airport.
Joe Biden’s plan for ending America’s involvement with Afghanistan has not survived first contact.
There will be pressure now to extend his deadline for evacuations beyond 31 August. There may also be calls for him to send extra US troops, something that might make sense when viewed from Washington DC, but a move that is likely to antagonise the Taliban.
So, can Biden now step forward, admit he was wrong, acknowledge things didn’t go as planned, and make sure he fixes them?
If so, the time for him to act is now.