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The original sin of Biden’s foreign policy

A few weeks ago I met a young Afghan woman in her mid-twenties in Toronto. She had worked for an international aid organization in Afghanistan, helping women with mental health problems. As the Taliban swept into the country in 2021, she desperately tried to flee, knowing she would be punished for working with foreigners. She eventually got out, together with her younger brother and sister, and first fled to Brazil via Iran. She then undertook a treacherous odyssey through South America, through the jungles of Panama, over former US President Donald Trump’s wall, through the United States and finally to Canada.

A few weeks ago I met a young Afghan woman in her mid-twenties in Toronto. She had worked for an international aid organization in Afghanistan, helping women with mental health problems. As the Taliban swept into the country in 2021, she desperately tried to flee, knowing she would be punished for working with foreigners. She eventually got out, together with her younger brother and sister, and first fled to Brazil via Iran. She then undertook a treacherous odyssey through South America, through the jungles of Panama, over former US President Donald Trump’s wall, through the United States and finally to Canada.

Her story is extraordinary because of her courage, but certainly not unique. Countless Afghans did what they could to escape murder, torture, rape and forced marriage. A lucky few were taken to safety by Western forces as they evacuated Kabul airport. Many more were left to fend for themselves at home. Others undertook dangerous odysseys. The lucky ones have started a new life; many more are stranded in refugee camps. Countless numbers have died during their treacherous journeys.


The book cover for Kabul: Final Call by Laurie Bristow
The book cover for Kabul: Final Call by Laurie Bristow

Kabul: Final Call: The Inside Story of the Afghanistan WithdrawalAugust 2021, Laurie Bristow, Whittles Publishing, 256 pp., $24.95, August 2024

They are all statistics and all victims of a larger power play. They were abandoned by the United States and its allies, who from the moment of their invasion in 2001 until their disastrous departure two decades later claimed to know what was best for Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom, which also killed more than 3,500 international soldiers, did not offer lasting freedom, but only the Afghans’ fleeting hope for a better life, which was suddenly and brutally eradicated.

One man has been rebellious all along. US President Joe Biden continued the policies outlined by Trump, his predecessor. Long before entering the White House, Biden had criticized the deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops for what long appeared to be pointless military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was one of many areas of US foreign and security policy in which Biden continued Trump’s work – although neither side saw it in their interest to proclaim that continuity. Even amid the horrific scenes that unfolded at Kabul International Airport in August 2021, reminiscent of the fall of Saigon half a century earlier, Biden stood by his assessment: “I did not intend to make this war forever nor did I intend to prolong a war forever. left forever.”

Amid the allegations, numerous congressional investigations were undertaken and reports were issued in the first few months after the debacle. Since then, films have been made and books written to explain what happened and who is most to blame. Policymakers and military leaders, on the other hand, moved quickly. Their attention turned to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and then to the entanglement between Israel, Hamas and the Middle East. Meanwhile, China is seen as the greatest strategic threat to Western long-term interests. Frankly, it seems inconceivable that Washington or its allies would have the resources or political support to maintain a presence in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, it is useful to return to what went wrong in Afghanistan precisely from a policy perspective, and not just from a moral perspective. Like many of the never-ending crises that have hit the world since, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a story of the good intentions and honest efforts of diplomats and military personnel who did what they could to protect as many people as possible. But it was also a story of fatal misjudgments on the ground and among political decision makers.

A new account by the then British ambassador (forthcoming in the United States, but already released in Britain), Laurie Bristow, provides important further insights into the disaster as it unfolded.

Even before Bristow arrived in Kabul on June 14, 2021, he knew his term would be short. The agreement to “bring peace to Afghanistan” that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020, was one of the most infamous deals of modern times. Not only was it naive to believe that the Taliban would stick to the agreed timetable and that they had somehow, incredibly, reformed themselves into something more modern, but it also ostentatiously excluded other key participants – none other than the Afghan government itself and the American government. important allies during the campaign, not least the British.

Throughout the first half of 2021, as the United States kept its end of the bargain by withdrawing its troops, a sense of foreboding quickly led to panic. The Taliban encountered virtually no resistance as they moved through the country.

For the British Embassy, ​​one of the key tasks was to identify which Afghans were eligible for emigration under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). In his account, written in diary form, Bristow describes fraught encounters with local workers and consultants, all of whom knew what would happen to them if left to their own devices.

“We sat in a circle in the embassy garden next to the war memorial while one of the men translated for those who needed it. I invited each of them to have their say one by one,” Bristow wrote on August 5. “The women spoke first, coherently and at length. One of them, an older woman, was confident and spoke with natural authority, without any regard for the men. There was fear and anger in the air, and some tears were wiped away, but this was tempered by the natural courtesy and dignity of the Afghans.” Bristow notes, “It was impossible for me to look them in the eye and tell them that I thought the decisions to deny their resettlement application were justified.”

Some were lucky; most were not. Be that as it may, the situation got out of hand and it was impossible for the bureaucrats at home to keep up with the applications. Within days, the British and other international forces were preparing to evacuate their embassies to the airport. They stripped away everything that could offer the Taliban a propaganda victory. ‘Photos of the Queen, flags, the official wine shop. Everything had to be removed or destroyed.”

The chaotic scenes of those last days, between the Taliban announcing their takeover on August 15 and the final evacuations of August 21, are etched in the memory. Bristow recalls, “The airport was gridlocked, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. The Americans alone had about 14,500 people at the airport, waiting to be flown out of Kabul. At the gates and around the north terminal, everywhere you went and everywhere you looked, there were people: under awnings, in the open, in doorways. With children, elderly parents, heartbreaking baggage – entire lives packed into a battered suitcase or a plastic supermarket bag.”

At home in Whitehall it was the high summer holidays. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was in Greece with his family and angrily insisted that he should not be disturbed. While teams in Kabul and London worked around the clock to get as many people out as possible, political operatives had other priorities. Bristow described it as ‘an ugly game of blame and passing the buck’, adding: ‘It seemed to me that the priority of some in London was to spare ministers and their closest advisers… personal and political shame. … The advice, assessment and welfare of the people on the ground were of secondary importance.” One of the unhappiest ministers of the Boris Johnson era – and there was plenty of competition for that mantle – Raab saw his political career fizzle out shortly afterwards.

Bristow’s overall assessment is worth pausing on: “The failure of the Afghanistan campaign was not due to a lack of resources. In 2011, at the height of the Obama Surge, NATO had more than 130,000 troops in Afghanistan. Britain spent more than £30 billion on the military campaign and aid to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021. U.S. spending was on a truly biblical scale: between $1 trillion and $2 trillion over 20 years, more than the entire cumulative GDP of Afghanistan over that period. . Yet these immense expenditures, incurred over nearly two decades, have not brought peace, stability or good governance to Afghanistan.”

The Doha agreement is, he adds, “a strong contender for the title of worst deal in history, if it is understood as a serious attempt to reach a negotiated solution. But that wasn’t the case. Trump’s deal was driven by something completely different: the American election manifesto.” Everyone he met who was familiar with Afghanistan was “dismayed by Trump’s dismal deal with the Taliban and then by Biden’s botched implementation of the withdrawal.”

In the maelstrom of 2024’s many crises, Afghanistan already feels like a footnote in history. One of the many lessons of its failure, Bristow writes, is the nature of cooperation between the United States and its allies. “The UK was a junior partner and we did not have an equal voice in US decision-making. The fact that we considered the military withdrawal unwise and ill-conceived did not change American policy.” This was, in other words, the first big test of “America First,” Trump-Biden style, and everyone else was left flailing in their wake. And there will undoubtedly be more of this kind of thing happening in other conflict zones, whether Biden wins re-election or not.