Withdrawal Derangement Syndrome
Media, pundits, the GOP, and liberals ignored the war. Now they want to criticize its ending.
After all but ignoring the war in Afghanistan, the media, the GOP, and too many liberals are suddenly clutching their pearls and sobbing over the withdrawal from that country. Suddenly, the withdrawal from the war no one cared about or paid attention to is a “very dark period”. The worst hypocrisies are on the part of the GOP, who had little to say when the Trump administration’s betrayal of Kurd allies led to a humiliating Russian takeover of US bases in North Syria two years ago. Even some benighted liberals are piling on this time.
Sadly, the circumstances prior to the withdrawal are seldom enumerated in the many and loud critiques.
Trump Undermined Even His Own Withdrawal Plans
One of the few reasonable promises Trump made during his campaign was to end the “forever war” in Afghanistan. As early as 2013, he tweeted that the US should leave the country “immediately”. By the end of his term, of course, the war had not ended.
Trump did continue the troop reductions begun by the Obama administration. In fact, by January 2020, against the advice of his military leaders and even some GOP members of Congress, Trump brought troop numbers down to 2,500.
The Trump administration had set a deadline for complete withdrawal by May 1, 2021. Despite drawing troop levels below what his own military leaders told him were necessary to support an orderly withdrawal, Trump insisted that his own May 1 deadline be moved up to Christmas. Only the practical refusal of the military to follow such an order prevented the debacle, including significant loss of life, that certainly would have occurred.
The fact that Trump attempted to change his own plans in a way that would have created substantial chaos doesn’t, in and of itself, undermine criticisms of President Biden’s tactics. Still, it's disingenuous to criticize Biden’s tactics with no mention at all of what the alternative might have been under the former president’s oversight. It’s legitimate to compare the likely outcome of that plan with those that resulted in the evacuation of more than 100K Americans and Afghans eight months later. I’ve seen no such comparisons.
Trump Gave Much, Got Little In Negotiations with Taliban
Trump had negotiated with the Taliban while excluding the Afghan government that we had spent 19 years, thousands of American lives and billions of dollars supporting. During those negotiations, much was given away, but little was obtained in return, making any subsequent withdrawal more difficult. (The covenant was so one-sided that even Trump’s former national security adviser called it a “surrender agreement”. )
The Trump administration agreed to release 5000 hardened Taliban fighters. The Taliban promised to release 1000 prisoners and to refrain from attacking Afghan forces. The prisoners were released by both sides, but the Taliban continued to attack Afghan forces. After the agreement was reached, the Taliban killed 3500 Afghan troops. No consequences were brought to bear on the Taliban by the Trump administration for the Taliban’s refusal to hold up its end of the bargain.
Trump Left Too Few Troops in Place for an Orderly Withdrawal
The low troop levels Trump created presented a problem for Biden’s desire to end the war in Afghanistan. That level probably wasn’t enough to support an effective withdrawal. As a consequence, Biden authorized a troop expansion to 5000 troops to support the withdrawal.
As such, the most hypocritical criticism of all comes from, of course, the previous president who developed the plans that President Biden largely stuck with…other than to extend the deadline and provide more resources. “It should have been done better,” he said last month. Better than what? His own plan to skedaddle by Christmas using fewer than half the troops Biden deployed? Well, it was.
Trump failed to fulfill his promise to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. His actions and ill-considered negotiations with the Taliban just made it more difficult for the next president to do so.
None of this is to say that there are no legitimate questions about or criticisms of the withdrawal. Conservative Russ Douthat provides one of the more balanced analyses I’ve seen. He correctly points out that a strategy of staying in Afghanistan simply because the cost seemed to be low and that no one was paying much attention to the war is illegitimate.
Withdrawal Bad….War Good
It’s one thing to argue, as Douthat does, that the US should withdraw, and it could have happened in a far more orderly fashion. It’s quite another to suggest that the way the withdrawal was executed is evidence that we shouldn’t be withdrawing at all. As Douthat says, the problematic withdrawal is the last episode in a misbegotten adventure in which a series of presidents and military leaders failed the country and failed our troops:
“Our botched withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors.”
Media, pundits, and politicians who scapegoat the president who had the courage to take on the backlash are, in effect, placing themselves on the side of meaningless and endless wars.