President Joe Biden should have been basking in praise following the Senate’s approval of his $1 trillion infrastructure bill. But the Taliban had other plans for him. It overran nearly two dozen of Afghanistan’s provincial towns and then took Kabul, barely firing a shot. Ashraf Ghani, the U.S.-backed government’s president and author of the how-to book, “Fixing Failed States,” fled.
In just a couple of weeks, a 70,000-man insurgency caused the U.S.-trained 300,000-person Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, or ANDSF, to implode. The state apparatus midwifed by the United States disintegrated. Amid- the pandemonium at Kabul airport, American soldiers struggled to impose order and airlift Americans out as desperate Afghans swarmed, and even clung to, departing U.S. transport aircraft. Videos show some falling from airborne planes.
Critics quickly took to their keyboards and appeared on talk shows to lambaste Biden. The most vocal weren’t just saying that the evacuation was bungled, but that success in Afghanistan remained possible.
Their refrain: Biden precipitated the ANDSF’s collapse by announcing in April that all U.S. soldiers would leave by September 11. That demoralized the ANDSF and the Ghani government. Biden should have anticipated a rapid Taliban takeover instead of assuming that Ghani’s government and the ANDSF could survive, at least for a decent interval. The 1,000 troops he added were too few and too late. He has besmirched the reputation of the United States, they say, and emboldened its adversaries, among them China, Russia, and Iran.
Many of the critics have been retired generals or advisers to generals during the 20-year Afghanistan war. They now claim that it could still have been won and deride those who disagree. These were the folks who touted various sunny “metrics” that supposedly demonstrated steady progress in achieving U.S. aims in Afghanistan. Following one visit, one such adviser hailed the ANDSF’s “growing effectiveness,” citing American officers’ assurances that it was battle-ready and prepared to fight.
Not one of these critics foresaw what they now accuse Biden of failing to foresee but what the Taliban clearly understood — that the Afghan state was a house of cards. For months, the insurgents methodically used bribes and/or threats to persuade local notables, provincial officials, and military commanders to surrender in exchange for a form of amnesty, at least for now.
For argument’s sake, let’s stipulate that the Biden administration should have predicted what was coming because, well, it had reams of secret information that ordinary people lack and because, by July, some, but not all, intelligence agencies were warning of a rapid collapse.
But this merely shifts to Biden’s shoulders a failure whose roots extend back to October, 2001 when, following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered the decapitation of the Taliban government. In fairness to Bush, 9/11 was a massive shock, the first large-scale foreign attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812, and Americans wanted revenge.
Demolishing the Taliban regime proved easy. But then the United States had to fill the void by creating a state and army, something that couldn’t possibly be accomplished in a year or two. Plus, the Taliban soon regrouped. The result: Washington, already distracted by its 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, embarked on a protracted nation-building and counter-insurgency enterprise.
Soon, civilian and military contractors, experts on democracy-promotion and state-building, platoons of consultants, and companies that made tidy sums supplying and equipping American troops in Afghanistan got involved. That created a conglomerate of special interests with a financial stake in a vast project of social engineering, and in keeping it going.
Afghans have been routinely portrayed as corrupt; but anyone who peruses the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, will find overwhelming evidence of corruption on the American side, fueled by the billions of dollars that poured into Afghanistan. Moreover, as a Washington Post investigation found, “the CIA gave cash to governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders.”
Still, each president handed the Afghanistan quagmire off to his successor. None wanted to be held responsible for “losing” Afghanistan, let alone another 9/11 attack. So 20 years passed at a total cost exceeding $2 trillion of which a mere $24 billion was invested in economic reconstruction, the rest in military-related expenses. But the Taliban, despite taking heavy punishment and losing many senior commanders and “shadow governors,” always replenished its ranks and kept fighting.
By the time President Trump, who had vowed to end Washington’s “forever wars,” was elected in 2016, the Taliban held more territory than it had since 2002.He understood that the war had lost support at home. Not that it ever demanded much from the vast majority of Americans. Without a military draft and with a government that preferred to borrow, rather than raise taxes, to cover the costs, this American way of waging war never provoked the public demonstrations, elite disillusionment, or electoral defeats that derailed political careers during the Vietnam era. And so it continues for years on end.
By the time of Biden’s election, Trump had already signed an agreement with the Taliban to reduce the U.S. troop presence to 8,600 by the fall of 2020 and to withdraw all American forces by May 1, 2021. If Biden had reversed course, he would have had to rely, presumably as a prelude to another “surge,” on just a few thousand soldiers to regain the territory taken by the Taliban, who were on a roll. As vice president, Biden had already opposed Obama’s surge of 100,000 troops 10 years earlier and, understandably, had no inclination to repeat. So he chose to continue on the path cleared by Trump but stretched the timetable for a final exit to September 11. Now he stands accused of abandoning the Afghan people.
Biden-bashers haven’t reflected on some fundamental questions: How successful could the 20-year nation-building undertaking have been if the impending exodus of a few thousand American soldiers precipitated the total unraveling of the Afghan government and the ANDSF in two weeks? And even if Biden had delayed the withdrawal date and deployed many more U.S. troops, would that have necessarily enabled an orderly evacuation given that thousands of desperate Afghans would still have thronged Kabul airport? Indeed, wouldn’t even a well-executed mass evacuation have prompted Afghan officials and military officers to cut deals with the Taliban? If, as some critics insist, retaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan would have prevented the Kabul government’s collapse and enabled continued anti-terrorism operations, what would have been the end game, and when would we have seen it?
Besides, if provincial panjandrums surrendered to the Taliban as quickly as they did, is it fair to ask how much popular legitimacy the Afghan state could have acquired? Infighting and corruption pervaded all levels of the government and every single Afghan election. Despite the democracy builders’ spin, the inescapable truth is that U.S.-backed Afghan governments never gained public confidence.
Conversely, as brutal and feared as the Taliban has been, without popular support, particularly among rural Pashtuns, it could never have kept replenishing its ranks and fighting adversaries that fielded (on paper at least) far more troops with much better equipment and far greater firepower — to say nothing of an air force. For years, the Taliban was portrayed by Western governments and media as universally hated and unmoored from Afghan society. But as Carter Malkasian, a Pashto speaker with extensive experience in Afghanistan, noted last month, “the Taliban were able to tie themselves to religion and to Afghan identity in a way that a government allied with non-Muslim foreign occupiers could not match.”
While the ANDSF had some excellent leaders, such as Gen. Sami Sadat, the young commander of the Helmand-based 215th Maiwand Corps, a few good generals do not a capable military force make. Though it’s wrong to say that the ANDSF was unwilling to fight — at least 69,000 Afghan troops and police have lost their lives since 2002 — it gave up big cities (such as Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif), with little to no resistance. Soldiers deserted en masse, abandoning their equipment, including drones, Humvees, and MRAPs. For all the claims of progress pedaled by generals and the “defense intellectuals” who advised them, the United States, despite having devoted $88 billion to the task, proved unable to create an Afghan military capable of standing on its own against determined adversaries ready to die for their cause,.
Yet the critics of withdrawal appear to believe that a few more years of effort could have turned things around, that Biden’s decision to end the war was what enabled the Taliban’s two-week sweep to victory. The “a-few-more-years” line has, in various versions, been repeated ad nauseum. It is nothing more than a call for open-ended engagement, a mantra that enables any failure, military or not, to be finessed with the response that things will improve, eventually.
The last few days in Afghanistan have been horrifying to watch. The president claimed to have “planned for every contingency” — save, evidently, the one he actually faced. We must now hope that he will resettle, here or in other countries of their choice, as many of the thousands of Afghans who are in danger due to their work for the United States or its allies as possible — assuming they can all now get to the airport. That will require negotiations with the Taliban and reforms to ensure that those who are evacuated don’t get stuck in the gridlock of our slow-motion Special Immigrant Visa Program.
The evacuation was botched. The Taliban’s rule will be harsh, especially for women. Yet the proposition that the experiment in Afghanistan would have succeeded but for the fact that Biden ended it is simply not persuasive. The facts, accumulated over two decades, simply don’t support it.
Rajan Menon is the Director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair Emeritus in International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York. He is also a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Kajaki, Afghanistan - February 4, 2012: US Marines pay tribute to fallen comrades. (GoodAndy45/Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.