Biden seeks to turn debacle in Afghanistan to victory at home

An Afghan National Army soldier takes a selfie with his mobile phone inside Bagram US air base after all US and Nato troops left, on July 5, 2021.
An Afghan National Army soldier takes a selfie with his mobile phone inside Bagram US air base after all US and Nato troops left, on July 5, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US pullout from the Pentagon's once mighty Bagram Air Base in the dead of night, while Taleban fighters pour across the country, looks a lot like a military defeat. Back home, President Joe Biden sees a political win.

The US government calls its Afghan exit a "drawdown," not a retreat. And it insists it will continue to support the increasingly vulnerable Afghan government from a distance.

However, the rapid, secretive extraction of all but a handful of the final US troops leaves no doubt about Biden's one true priority: ending 20 years of fruitless warfare against a Taleban insurgency that could not be beaten.

Defeat or not, but the White House is blunt about the basic reality.

Afghanistan is "a war that the president continues to feel does not have a military solution," press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday (July 6).

'Concern for the world'

Biden originally set a deadline for the withdrawal of Sept 11 - the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that first triggered US invasion of Afghanistan.

By Tuesday, though, 90 per cent of the troops were already gone. The last will be out by the end of August, the Pentagon said.

As quickly as the American presence vanishes, so the Taleban force advances, sometimes taking over swathes of territory without a fight, sometimes engaging in bloody clashes.

The Afghan government claims that hundreds of Taleban died in the latest fighting, but there have also been signs of potential collapse in the US-built national army. On Monday, a thousand soldiers simply fled across the border into Tajikistan.

The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, has delivered an unusually blunt warning of chaotic civil war - a "concern for the world."

Domestic audience

Biden's predecessor Donald Trump set the exit in motion when he struck a deal with the Taleban where US troops would get out by May 1. Biden, despite disagreeing with Trump on most things, changed the date but embraced the idea.

"I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan," Biden said in April. "I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth."

For all the gloom and doom inside Afghanistan, Biden has a firm focus on an entirely different picture back home: overwhelming public support for stopping the so-called "forever war."

Amid warnings that the Taleban could commit atrocities, ban girls' education, or even renew its relationship with Al-Qaeda, some say Biden should rethink his plans.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calls the withdrawal "a disaster in the making."

But John Mueller, a political science professor and foreign policy expert at Ohio State University, says that whatever the aftermath of the war, the most likely reaction from Americans will be to shrug.

"I don't think the likely political ramifications are very great one way or the other. No one got shattered from the cosmic debacle in 1975 in Vietnam and there were no repercussions for Reagan's withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 or Clinton's from Somalia in 1993," he said.

"Americans are likely to give it little attention. They are good at that and are already working on it."

Gordon Adams, a professor at American University's School of International Service, said Biden was right "to cut bait."

"I do not think there is a personal risk to Biden," Adams said. "Afghanistan is not a popular war."