On Afghan pullout anniversary, Biden has moved on

Taliban supporters celebrate the first anniversary of the departure of US forces in Kabul, on Aug 30, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Joe Biden faced intense criticism for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan but one year later both he and the United States have largely turned the page, even as the war-ravaged country still faces mounting challenges.

Biden put out a written statement to mourn 13 US soldiers killed on August 26, 2021 in a bombing outside the Kabul airport but otherwise has stayed low-key on the anniversary of the end of America's longest war, instead holding events on gun violence and democracy at home.

In a message to the armed forces, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin paid tribute to the 2,461 US troops who died in the war and hailed Americans' efforts to build "a brighter future for the Afghan people" - now once again living under Taliban militants.

"As our country looks back on two decades of combat in Afghanistan, I understand that many people have hard questions about the costs of the war and what their sacrifices meant," said Austin, who led forces early in the war.

"These are important discussions, and I hope we will keep having them with thoughtfulness and respect."

Washington 'echo chamber'

Biden was a longstanding critic of the Afghanistan war, believing ordinary Americans had little at stake in a grinding conflict he saw as a costly distraction from other priorities.

As Kabul fell, with the government crumbling within days despite US$2 trillion (S$2.8 trillion) pumped into Afghanistan over two decades, Biden was adamant he would not back down.

One year later, Biden appears to have been right, at least in the narrow political sense.

Afghanistan figures nowhere among top priorities for Americans and a new Gallup poll found that 50 per cent of them believe the entire war was a mistake, compared with nearly universal support after the September 11, 2001 attacks prompted the invasion that toppled the Taliban.

"It's very easy to poke holes in the decision to leave without providing viable alternatives in good faith," said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates military restraint.

"DC is its own echo chamber in which a few people are discussing it but for the majority of Americans, it's not an anniversary that matters to them," he said.

"They're worried about inflation, student debt, the divisions that exist in our country and so forth. They're not thinking about the one-year anniversary of a war that most of the country had no stake in."

But the scenes from Afghanistan preceded a sharp drop in the approval rating of Biden, who was elected promising smooth, competent leadership after the pandemonium under his predecessor Donald Trump.

Afghanistan was not the only factor, with Covid-19 cases also spiking at the time. But one year later, Biden's approval rating, while still underwater, has been rebounding after key legislative wins.

'Betrayal' for women

The Afghanistan war, which stretched over four presidencies, no longer defines Biden's foreign policy after six months of intense efforts to arm Ukraine and isolate Russia for its invasion.

Biden has kept up aid to Afghanistan while bypassing the Taliban and proved his argument that the United States could fight terrorism without boots on the ground by ordering a drone strike in Kabul that killed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Critics question why Zawahiri was living in the Afghan capital at all. And the Taliban's return has been a punch in the gut to those who fought for a different Afghanistan, especially one that ensures the rights of women and girls, once again denied education under the militants' austere interpretation of Islam.

Teresa Casale, executive director of Mina's List, which advocated a role for women in Afghan negotiations, said that guarantees should have been in place before the US military left.

"The withdrawal, without that, we absolutely categorise as a disaster and I would even go further to say a betrayal," she said.

"Afghanistan has turned into the worst women's rights crisis on Earth while a little bit over a year ago 27 per cent of the parliament were women."

She faulted both Trump for negotiating directly with the Taliban and Biden for ordering an unconditional pullout before Afghan talks could advance.

While Trump sealed the withdrawal with the Taliban, his Republican Party has roundly criticised the Biden administration's handling of it and has vowed hearings on Afghanistan if it wins November congressional elections.

"Because of their actions, or lack thereof, the fallout of this debacle has irreparably harmed both our national security and global image," said Republican Representative Mike Waltz.

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