Will Afghanistan define Joe Biden’s presidency?

Veteran diplomat says US president’s credibility is in ‘tatters’

Joe Biden
(Image credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Joe Biden defended the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in a televised address yesterday after the Taliban took Kabul.

Amid mounting criticism of his handling of the crisis, the US president admitted that the collapse of Afghanistan’s government had occurred “more quickly” than he expected, but insisted: “I stand squarely behind my decision.”

Biden blamed the Taliban’s ascendancy on political leaders who fled the country and on the Afghan army’s unwillingness to fight. He also pointed the finger at his predecessor, Donald Trump, for leaving the Taliban “in the strongest position militarily since 2001”.

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The Wall Street Journal says his White House speech indicates that Biden “believes he can carry the country with him”. But many pundits are predicting that the Afghanistan withdrawal will come to define his tenure as US leader.

Al Jazeer​​​a’s Steve Chaggaris says the “chaotic and dangerous withdrawal from Afghanistan is already being widely considered a dark stain” on Biden’s “young presidency”.

A “litany” of congressional hearings into “how and why the withdrawal played out as it did” will ensure this issue “remains a part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future”, Chaggaris predicts.

Veteran US diplomat John Bolton is among the high-profile figures already blasting Biden. In an article for The Telegraph, Bolten points out that “after four aberrant years of Trump, Biden pledged that ‘America is back’ and would provide competent leadership”.

But “having followed Trump’s erroneous exit policy, and then bungled it, Biden’s credibility also lies in tatters”, the former White House national security adviser adds.

Biden’s “political fate” will rest on whether the Taliban goes on to support “terrorist malefactors”, argues Jacob Heilbrunn in the New York Post, who notes that the militant group has “refused to disavow al-Qaeda”.

“If Biden is wrong, it will be more than just political,” writes Heilbrunn. “The lives of Americans are at stake.”

Yet despite these high stakes, recent polling suggests that a majority of US voters from across the political spectrum support the pullout from Afghanistan. A survey of more than 2,000 people last month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs think-tank found that 70% backed the US withdrawal.

Given that widespread support, Biden’s defence of his decision is “likely to find receptive ears among voters”, says The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. But ultimately, his success in evacuating thousands of US citizens and allied personnel still in Afghanistan “will determine how history judges his decision”, she continues.

“The public will reward him if the withdrawal does not lead to a repeat of 9/11. And they will forgive him the chaos if he gets thousands of innocents out of the Taliban hellhole.”

The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, meanwhile, invokes “one of my ironclad rules about covering the Middle East: when big events happen, always distinguish between the morning after and the morning after the morning after”, when “the full weight of history and the merciless balances of power assert themselves”.

Biden has essentially argued that the “old way of trying to secure the US from Middle East terrorists through occupation and nation-building doesn’t work and that there is a better way”, Friedman continues. But the president now “needs to tell us what that way is and prove it on the morning after the morning after”.

Taking a longer-term view, Charles A. Kupchan predicts in the Los Angeles Times that, for simple economic reasons, Biden’s approach will prove more popular as time goes by. “Against a backdrop of decades of economic discontent among US workers, recently exacerbated by the devastation of the pandemic, voters want their tax dollars to go to Kansas, not Kandahar,” Kupchan writes.

This point is echoed by Tim Stanley in The Telegraph. “From Europe, it looks like a shaming exit,” he says, “but it was America that largely carried the cost, in lives and money, and voters must be tired of all this nation-building.”

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.