The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has captured all the headlines this week.
The chaotic scenes have played out live on the nation’s 24-hour rolling news channels and portrayed a U.S. military and diplomatic machine out of step with itself, lacking support from important allies, and undoubtedly plunging an already volatile region into an inevitable humanitarian crisis.
It has raised many questions, not least about the credibility of the Biden administration, and has sent a quake through the mainly urban clusters of liberal America.
What was the President thinking? What did he get told? When did he know the situation was deteriorating? Why hadn’t he spoken to other World leaders and NATO first?
For a man who has spent his entire life in the political glare, Biden may have badly miscalculated – or been poorly advised – with potentially devastating consequences in Afghanistan, on the World stage, and here at home.
In Afghanistan the situation is most treacherous.
This has been America’s longest continuous conflict. It had to come to an end at some time.
The original mission of neutralizing Al-Qaeda following the 9/11 terror attacks had near national support. But that mission quickly became regime change and building pro-western democracy as no sooner did U.S. and other forces arrive than the terror group packed up their tents and rocket launchers and headed to safe harbour in Pakistan leaving the invading western forces to deal with the consequences of a bitterly divided and resentful population.
The U.S. and others had long signalled that they couldn’t stay forever, and the past 20 years was meant to have seen the building of the infrastructure and systems for Afghan autonomous rule. Surely the military and diplomats on the ground knew whether the Afghan army and government were ready for the role before they skipped town?
But so rapid was this week’s U.S. military retreat, more than 15,000 U.S. citizens and green card holders have been left stranded in Kabul, as are hundreds of thousands of Afghans with Special Immigration Visas who worked as translators and administrators with the international community to introduce democracy, the rule of law and a better future. They are now at critical risk of brutal retaliation from a fundamentalist regime which has already started doling out its mediaeval retributions. The U.S. ambassador and staff however have already left.
The rest of the watching world must be worried too.
This is America, the world’s foremost superpower and possessor of unrivalled military might. And even if the numbers don’t entirely support that claim anymore, the threat of U.S. action, implied or directly expressed, is largely responsible for the relative peace of the past 75 years, as well as securing the free-market world order we all enjoy.
So how are the images of fleeing U.S. forces and the President’s TV declaration of “your problem not mine’ being received by others fighting tyranny and oppression? What message does the U.S. decision to up and leave in the middle of the night send?
There will be frantic phone calls from Kiev to get reassurance that the U.S. is still supporting Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea, Donetsk or Luhansk in the face of hostile Russian troops, or those fearing persecution for demanding freedom and democracy for Hong Kong or Taiwan will get the reassurance of an occasional American warship passing through the South China Sea where Chinese state forces are already staging military drills and shows of strength.
Though it is here at home that the impact of these seemingly catastrophic blunders will have Biden and the Democrats most worried.
This is America. This is a nation which wins wars and, even if it had lost, it sure doesn’t put them unfiltered, unedited, and unsupervised on TV for all to see. We thought that lesson had been learned in Vietnam fifty years ago.
Biden promised no helicopters on the roof of the embassy this time, but that is literally what we saw on our TVs this week.
We would have expected civilians to have been flown out first followed by a last military flight from Afghanistan to land ceremoniously at Andrews Air Force Base, where a grateful President would have welcomed the troops home and honoured the sacrifice so many had made. Mission Accomplished as George W. would have said.
But, instead, our screens have been filled with pictures of desperate mothers pleading with departing U.S. soldiers to take their children to safety, people scrambling to get on planes, deserted embassy buildings and a military air base abandoned to the advancing forces of the Taliban.
Biden’s messaging has been clumsy too. His ‘not my problem’ stance has not gone down well with his core Democrat voter base who have a more inclusive global view than their Republican counterparts, and his feeble claim he is simply continuing the policies of the former incumbent hasn’t helped either.
Congressmen and women of all parties are increasingly vocal in their criticism of the administration, and powerful sub-committees and bi-partisan groups will be scathing next week if things quickly worsen.
Americans are worried.
With chaos reigning in Afghanistan, a worsening COVID-19 situation, deadlock on budget plans, inflation looming and the Fed looking at interest rate rises they are rightly asking – Hey, who’s in charge here?
Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.