By pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has accepted that he will be only the third American president to be seen losing a war, after the shared roles of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in Vietnam.
Biden was politically courageous in opening himself up to domestic opprobrium after three predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, had “kicked the can down the road” — even when it had become clear that the U.S. and its partners could not prevail in Afghanistan. He has made the right decision; but he may pay a hard political price for it. And, if he doesn’t readily take other steps regarding Afghanistan and its neighbors, the United States will pay an international price, too.
The pace with which the Taliban has been seizing territory further underscores U.S. failure, particularly in the simple terms of “win” versus “lose” as judged by much of the political elite (not just Republicans) and most of the mainstream media.
Biden had to be aware of what happened in domestic politics to previous presidents who incurred what were widely seen as losses abroad. For decades, Republicans pilloried the Democrats for “losing China.” Lyndon Johnson was in effect driven from office, not just by anti-war opponents of the Vietnam War, but also by those Americans who wanted “victory or nothing.” Richard Nixon was pushed from office, not just for the Watergate scandal, but also for protracting the Vietnam War despite his pledge in the 1968 election to bring it to an end. Jimmy Carter suffered from the failure of the hostage rescue mission in Iran. And four presidents have covered up post-conflict failure in Iraq by sleight of hand and the pretense that somehow stability can emerge from the dog’s breakfast Iraq became — itself caused by the United States.
In American public opinion, Afghanistan might prove to be different from these earlier examples. Unlike Vietnam, most Americans have been largely oblivious to the Afghan war and generally want “no more endless wars,” especially, but not limited to, the Middle East and environs.
Beyond domestic political risks for Biden, given almost universal perceptions of Afghanistan’s future and most likely the reality, it is curious that he has done so little to minimize the possibilities that the “loss” of Afghanistan will have negative consequences throughout the region. He must have recognized before his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan that the so-called peace agreement negotiated by the United States and the Taliban in February 2020 — notably without a role in the talks for the Kabul government — was only a fig leaf for America’s departure and the Taliban’s likely ascendency. It seemed obvious then to almost all observers that this was, as in Vietnam during the Nixon administration, just buying a “decent interval” before an inevitable Taliban victory.
From the beginning of his administration, President Biden had time to start preparing for the aftermath of the war’s end, including the current rush for the exits by individual Afghans, military and civilian, who have supported America’s war aims, as happened infamously in Saigon in 1975. Even now, the administration is moving at a snail’s pace in helping to protect those tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who will be marked by the Taliban for punishment or death for supporting the United States. The need to “process visas” is a lame excuse, as opposed to simply getting people out of Afghanistan and into the United States — especially when compared to the number of people who illegally cross America’s southern border every day. Here, America’s reputation is clearly at risk.
Further, it has long been obvious that the West’s exit must be accompanied by serious regional diplomacy that includes Afghanistan’s neighbors, all of which have their own interests there – and for some, serious ambitions. These include Pakistan and Iran, plus Russia, China, and India. Contiguous Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan also have interests, though little impact, as does non-contiguous Turkey and, more distant and with less concern, the European Union.
But there has been no apparent effort by the U.S. to help organize multilateral diplomacy or to play an appropriate role in shared leadership thereof, no apparent effort to create some understandings of risks that could be posed to others by a dominant Taliban or Afghan civil war or to fashion some political framework within the region. Piecemeal diplomacy with individual countries — notably Pakistan — will not do the job.
Nor can any such framework be developed if the United States will not countenance Iran’s involvement. Washington’s reluctance is reinforced by the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, President Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran’s tit-for-tat violating of its own agreed limits on nuclear work, and the lack of any diplomatic engagement between the two countries, other than their arms-length talks in Vienna on the JCPOA. But without Iran as a fully accepted element in the regional diplomatic mix, little is possible.
Even if all pertinent parties could be convened, would such diplomacy for the aftermath in Afghanistan succeed? No one can know. But we do know that, for its part, the Biden administration hasn’t entirely tried, and may be signaling that it is washing its hands of the country and the consequences of doing so. Ending America’s longest war, a conflict which never made sense following the spasm response to 9/11 (which almost all of us Americans supported), has merit in itself, but continuing failure to give due consideration to the aftermath will cause a blow to U.S. credibility and reliability throughout the region and perhaps beyond.
Countries competing with the United States, notably Russia and China, are already becoming involved in Afghanistan. The United States needs to be an integral part of efforts to get Moscow and Beijing to see that, rather than pursuing beggar-thy-neighbor engagement, great-power cooperation can be a shared interest. This can have an important side-benefit of trying to forestall cold war between the United States and one or both of Russia and China, by showing that at least in this one region they can all work together against escalating instability in Southwest Asia and the contiguous Middle East.
As Afghanistan seems to be falling apart, we must hope it is not too late for Washington to press for comprehensive regional diplomacy needed at least to create some basis for understanding among external powers about the risks they face from an increasingly-likely Afghanistan civil war, plus their own roles — and potentially some international cooperation — regarding Afghanistan’s future and that of the surrounding region.
President Biden can act immediately. But if he does not and the most likely scenario of either Taliban takeover or civil war is played out, he will rightly earn a reputation for having “lost” Afghanistan — however unjust — and for failing to try to secure U.S .interests in the region as a whole. The consequences can’t be judged immediately, but surely they will not be positive.