Even if he didn’t peevishly block me on Twitter, I’d consider Washington Post columnist Charles Lane’s Tuesday piece on – how President Biden can “contain” Afghanistan-related damage to his presidency and historical legacy – pretty silly. For it completely ignores some screamingly obvious ways that this debacle can greatly worsen and keep degrading his image far into the future – and of course through the midterm 2022 elections and the 2024 presidential campaign.
Not that it’s out of the question that the domestic political calculation on which Mr. Biden is widely reported to have based his Afghan withdrawal will prove correct. The American public’s attention span can be pretty short and, as the President has rightly noted, who controls that remote “country” has no bearing on U.S. national security. (I use quotes because American policy has been led astray largely because there’s so little evidence that Afghanistan is a country in any meaningful sense of the word.)
Moreover, in case you haven’t noticed, the national news cycle has sped up considerably in recent years. Therefore, any public anger over the withdrawal botch could quickly evaporate once the next crisis or Biden failure, or Biden triumph that comes barreling down the pike. And the twenty-plus year Forever War remains unpopular. (See, e.g., here and here. For an interesting exception, see here.) As a result, Afghanistan could indeed become yesterday’s meat loaf as far as U.S. voters are concerned, and even surprisingly quickly.
Even so, it’s easy to imagine how fallout from the withdrawal could pose genuine threats to America and keep Mr. Biden “in the woods” politically.
For example, the odds seem good that the Biden administration will not be able to pull all American citizens out of Afghanistan during the partially open window the Taliban victors seem willing to provide – for now. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has already admitted that the U.S. military can’t guarantee Americans not already at the Kabul airport safe passage to the airport, and the State Department has advised these individuals to “shelter in place.” Many could be widely scatttered throughout Afghanistan’s Texas-sized territory.
The Taliban might agree to allow the United States to keep troops in the country beyond the August 31 total military withdrawal deadline set by the President – which Mr. Biden now says may be necessary to complete the evacuation. Or it might not. And if its leaders (whoever they really are) do decide to play nice with the United States, some groups in its jihadist ranks might not.
It’s plausible to believe that those Taliban leaders would want the American military completely gone as soon as possible, and therefore have strong incentives to play ball with Washington. But it seems to me just as plausible to believe that they’d find hostages very useful – say, as leverage to prompt the United States to release large amounts of the ousted Afghan government’s funds (which are currently held at the U.S. Federal Reserve), and the International Monetary Fund to release the smaller but not negligible amount of economic credits (called Special Drawing Rights or SDRs) that the previous regime was scheduled to receive about now. (See here for the details.)
If a hostage situation does emerge, then Mr. Biden could find himself with a problem at least as bad as former President Jimmy Carter suffered after the Iranian revolution in 1979. But even if hostages aren’t taken, a Biden administration decision to keep American troops on the ground in the country in defiance of Taliban wishes in order to find U.S. personnel and escort them to the airport, or even increase the deployment to carry out these missions, could trigger renewed fighting and American casualties. And this fighting could last for weeks and even months.
Afghan refugees admitted into the United States could vex President Biden for years to come as well – and in two ways. First, as noted, if his administration casts too wide a net (and it’s widened already), any number of Taliban or Al Qaeda members or other jihadists could wind up resettling here. Few question the desire to protect Afghans directly employed by the U.S. military or other government agencies – and I don’t, either.
But calls are being issued to extend visas to still other categories of Afghans, and as always, it’s difficult to imagine that all of them could have been adequately vetted in peacetime given that the previous Afghan government wasn’t exactly the gold standard for efficiency or honesty. Now of course, conditions in the country are utterly chaotic, so the vetting challenge looks that much greater.
If any of those resettled in the United States wind up committing terrorist acts, there’ll surely be political hell to pay for the President. In fact, although, as I’ve argued repeatedly (e.g. here) the key to preventing Middle East-spawned terror strikes on America was never sending U.S. forces to chase around that terminally dysfunctional region every new jihadist group it would inevitably spawn. Instead, it was always securing America’s borders.
Consequently, Mr. Biden can now be fairly accused of failure on both these fronts.Thanks to his Afghan pullout, the Taliban might indeed permit jihadists from re-establishing a terrorist base benefiting from the protection of a sovereign state. And it’s reasonable to conclude that Islamic extremists in other countries and regions will be emboldened as well. At the same time, his Open Borders-friendly immigration policies were making it harder to keep them out even before Kabul fell. Talk about the worst of all possible worlds.
There’s a third refugee-related problem that could stain the Biden record long-term also: crime. Europe’s naive admission of literally millions of Afghans and other Middle Easterners fleeing their war-torn lands greatly undermined public safety in countries like Austria, Germany, and Sweden. No comparable problem has yet appeared in the United States. But so far, U.S. refugee admissions have been much more limited – largely, but not exclusively, because of the Trump administration’s more restrictive policies. If their numbers greatly increase during the Biden years, either because of more indulgent policies or failure to secure U.S. borders, all bets are off.
The 2020 U.S. presidential election showed that it’s dangerous to count Mr. Biden out. After all, until his primary victory in South Carolina, he was derided as a political “dead man walking.” In that contest, however, he benefited from powerful political allies like longtime South Carolina Democratic Congressman James Clyburn. I’m straining to see any similar saviors on the ground in Afghanistan or over the horizon.