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VOICES

Larry Donnelly Biden promised stability and experience, but Kabul now blights his presidency

Our columnist looks at the US President’s handling of Afghanistan, and what the future holds for his administration.

THE TERROR ATTACK so feared by intelligence sources and western governments sadly came to pass at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday. The fundamentalist faction known as ISIS-K, who are even more radical than the Taliban, is responsible.

As a consequence, dozens are dead, at least 13 members of the US military among them, and many more are seriously injured. “Absolute fury” was reported to be the reaction of Afghan veterans in Massachusetts.

In a televised address to the American people, the anger, pain, and weariness of the commander-in-chief, Joe Biden, were unmistakable. He called those who perished in unimaginable circumstances “heroes” and said directly to those who orchestrated the suicide bombings that “we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

President Biden vowed that “we will complete our mission” and noted that thousands had been evacuated on the day of the attack. He indicated that the country would exact retribution against the perpetrators “at our time, at the place we choose, in a moment of our choosing.” Further, after the troops have departed, Biden promised to “find means” to rescue Americans and Afghan allies. But they are getting out.

Public disapproval

Although 70% of Americans surveyed a couple of months ago posited that withdrawal should happen and a majority still concur, nearly 2/3 of those polled lately in a USA Today/Suffolk University poll disapprove of how it has been done. That figure should rise now. In excess of 80% think that Afghans who assisted the US should be granted refugee visas.

Those asked several days ago believe that there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to Afghanistan, however. And the president who first went in following 9/11, George W Bush, is the most culpable in the eyes of 62%. Smaller numbers fault Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

As one interviewee, interestingly a GOP voter and Trump loyalist, opined with respect to 2020 negotiations with the Taliban that resulted in an agreement that the US would leave imminently: “There needs to be some accountability to the previous administration on the deal they cut.”

Yet claims by President Biden’s supporters that what has transpired owes to Trump’s misguided and naïve attempt to do business with the Taliban are undercut by the fact that there isn’t much difference between the two political foes on this issue. Each man unequivocally backed getting out of Afghanistan – the sooner, the better.

This was shaped by a shared political calculus. It is derived from the assessment of one Democrat in response to pollsters’ queries about Afghanistan. “We spent a long time there and used a lot of treasure and a lot of American lives. There was no clear goal, and there’s been no clear benefit from it.” That approximates how very many Americans feel about interventionism writ large in 2021.

Biden’s future

Post-Afghanistan – which faces an uncertain, harrowing future – then, there are big questions for Joe Biden in the short term and about America in the medium term.

For President Biden, the reality is that the dreadful events in Kabul have massively dented a core element of his appeal: a competence narrative. He was a steady, experienced statesman, not an amateur like his predecessor. He would employ a deep understanding of complex trouble spots in a thoughtful, measured approach to foreign policy. And he would surround himself with the foremost experts. Accordingly, there would be no blunders. I am afraid not.

In the not too distant past, the president had asserted that Afghan security forces, having been trained by the best personnel and having been gifted the top weapons and armaments, could repel the Taliban. Indeed, it was not necessarily inevitable that the Taliban would seek to regain control in this context.

How could he and others have been so spectacularly wrong? Was there a colossal intelligence failure on the ground or were they simply lying? And where exactly did the trillions of American taxpayer dollars that were ploughed into Afghanistan over the years by Democrats and Republicans go?

The Biden administration is determined to move beyond these mysteries that surround the lengthiest conflict in his nation’s history. His political team has to be convinced that, so strong is the isolationist impulse in the US, Afghanistan will slowly but surely fade from the citizenry’s collective radar screen.

And although temporarily horrified, particularly by the deaths of brave young Americans aiding those fleeing a catastrophic situation, the electorate’s focus will return to myriad pressing concerns on the home front.

America withdrawn

Ultimately, President Biden is wagering that his work to stimulate the economy after the pandemic and to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure will pay dividends for Democrats in the 2022 mid-term elections.
Additionally, regardless of how grossly negligent the execution of it was, Biden hopes his party’s standard-bearers are actually rewarded at the ballot box for his finally extricating the US from a place where the problems are unfixable in the eyes of many.

Votes are not often cast on the basis of foreign policy decisions, yet this space will be intriguing to monitor as Americans nervously anticipate what may emanate from ISIS-K or the Taliban. And while they won’t want anything remotely resembling a full-scale war, there will be a desire to avenge the soldiers slaughtered in Kabul.

In a broader sense, international observers are lamenting what they see as a shameful retreat of the dominant superpower from the world stage. Speculation is rampant that China is waiting to fill the void. There is widespread frustration with Joe Biden, whose pledges to restore multilateralism and consign Trump’s America First doctrine to the history books are increasingly viewed with scepticism.

Here and elsewhere, I have frequently described the harbingers of the decline of an outward-looking US and the reasons behind it. A prevalent sentiment in these fraught days over there among women and men of all ideological stripes is illustrative: invade Afghanistan and we’re damned; stay in Afghanistan and we’re damned; leave Afghanistan and we’re damned. We’ve had enough.

Politicians, including President Biden, are only heeding what they’ve been hearing from beleaguered constituents. As such, it’s next to impossible to find a liberal or a conservative officeholder who thinks the US should endeavour to be a global policeman or anything close to it.

Other commentators are currently hazarding guesses as to what a greatly diminished role for America might mean for the rest of us. I’ll be honest: I don’t know.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political
columnist with TheJournal.ie. His upcoming book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish
American Political Family” – will be published by Gill Books on 15 October and is available for pre-order here.

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