NIALL FERGUSON: Images that give Biden's desertion a human face

NIALL FERGUSON: Images of a baby being thrown over razor wire give Biden’s desertion a human face that’s rousing America from its slumber

It is one of the ironies of history that the American intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was given the name Operation Enduring Freedom. 

So what should we call the shambolic American exit we are currently witnessing? Operation Evaporating Freedom? How about Operation Enduring Foul Up?

There was certainly something enduring about the scenes in Kabul last week. Read Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American: ‘We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but… [then] we made peace… and left our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. 

They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. But we were liberals and we didn’t want a bad conscience.’

I doubt Joe Biden has read much Greene. But he’s certainly of the generation of liberals that Vietnam scarred, even if he watched the war from the comfort of the US Senate, to which he was elected in 1972 – aged 29 – after campaigning for US withdrawal.

To see the part Vietnam played in Biden’s decision to pull the last American troops from Afghanistan, you need only read a remarkable entry in Richard Holbrooke’s diary from 2010. 

Why did the Biden administration do everything in the wrong order, closing down Bagram airbase on July 2 and withdrawing US special forces (against the advice of their own commander) before ensuring the safe passage out of American and other vulnerable civilians?

In the last act of his remarkable diplomatic career, Holbrooke was trying desperately to find some way out of the Afghan-Pakistan morass. He was startled by the vehemence of then Vice President Biden, whose son had served in Iraq.

‘When I mentioned the women’s issue, Biden erupted. Almost rising from his chair, he said, ‘I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for…’

‘Joe took the position, plain and simple, that we have to get out of Afghanistan.’

When Holbrooke remonstrated, Biden became heated: ‘He said it ain’t going to happen, he said I don’t understand politics… We have to be on our way out, that we had to do what we did in Vietnam. This shocked me and I commented immediately that I thought we had a certain obligation to the people who had trusted us.

‘He said, ‘F*** that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.’

And maybe that’s all you need to know. To Biden, it’s Vietnam. The scenes in Kabul, in his mind, were bound to be like the scenes in Saigon in 1975.

Yes, he acknowledged on Friday, it was ‘heartbreaking’. But privately, as he revealed to Holbrooke, his calculation was heartless. 

As he remembers it, the cost of walking away from South Vietnam was negligible for the Republican Party. It was for quite different reasons that Nixon was forced to resign and Gerald Ford was defeated in 1976. 

By the same token, Biden thinks the benefit of being able to say, ‘I brought the troops home from Afghanistan’ before next year’s mid-term elections will exceed the costs of abandoning the Afghans – particularly those who supported the US presence as soldiers and interpreters – to the 7th Century barbarity of the Taliban.

America never ceases to amaze. The same people who excoriated Donald Trump for almost everything he did, and who would be heaping the most bitter opprobrium on him if he were the one doing this, are now firmly of the opinion that Biden is in the right.

They appear not to have noticed that this irresponsible exit is the consummation of Trump’s policy; that it was Trump who struck a lousy deal with the Taliban; that it was Trump who had already slashed the troop numbers to just 2,500 by the time Biden replaced him in the White House.

Even so, I find it hard to believe that the Trump administration would have made such an abysmal mess of this final phase. Why did the Biden administration do everything in the wrong order, closing down Bagram airbase on July 2 and withdrawing US special forces (against the advice of their own commander) before ensuring the safe passage out of American and other vulnerable civilians?

Why were they surprised when the Afghan army responded to the withdrawal of the US air support on which they relied by laying down their arms, surrendering all the major cities of the country in the space of six days, and making a mockery of Biden’s claim in July that a Taliban victory was not inevitable?

Biden thinks the benefit of being able to say, ‘I brought the troops home from Afghanistan’ before next year’s mid-term elections will exceed the costs of abandoning the Afghans – particularly those who supported the US presence as soldiers and interpreters – to the 7th Century barbarity of the Taliban

The Nixon-Ford administration ultimately could not save South Vietnam after Congress cut off all aid. But they at least achieved something like a ‘decent interval’ between the peace agreement in January 1973 and the fall of Saigon more than two years later.

Vietnam’s relevance to Biden is not so much what he learned in the 1970s. It’s the simple fact that he was in office in the 1970s. The man is 78 and it shows.

The word in Washington is that he tires easily. It has been a struggle to get him through the past week without a significant senior moment.

The truth is that the more the President insists, ‘This was my decision,’ the more I wonder about that. It looks at least as much the decision of his National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan.

Unlike the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defence, who formally outrank him, the National Security Adviser is in the White House, with daily access to the President. Sullivan would appear to share Biden’s view that ordinary Americans don’t give a damn about Afghanistan.

To quote the report on ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ that Sullivan co-authored for the Carnegie Endowment last year, ‘long interventions – for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan – have proven costly to middle-class economic interests’.

But Sullivan is also the kind of person who will execute a presidential decision with blinkered determination. ‘He’s the problem,’ an experienced Washington watcher told me on Friday. ‘He is the uber-staffer, who thinks it’s his job to execute exactly what the President says. He is the debate camp champ, who thinks it’s his job to make the case, regardless of whether it’s right or not – even if he knows it’s not.’

Presidents often give reckless or contradictory orders. A good National Security Adviser, as Henry Kissinger was to Richard Nixon, knows not to implement every instruction to the letter. Likewise, a President needs to be presented with meaningful choices.

A good adviser doesn’t cherry-pick the intelligence, as I gather Sullivan did.

The Central Intelligence Agency foresaw the speed of the Taliban takeover accurately. But the Defence Intelligence Agency is said to have provided over- optimistic predictions about the resilience of the Afghan government. Theirs was the report Sullivan went with.

The situation in Kabul is dire, with the potential to get worse. The US has 6,000 troops at Kabul Airport, but it does not control access. Who gets out therefore depends on the goodwill of the Taliban.

Saigon 1975 is only one analogy.

The same people who excoriated Donald Trump for almost everything he did, and who would be heaping the most bitter opprobrium on him if he were the one doing this, are now firmly of the opinion that Biden is in the right

If a significant number of Americans end up as hostages of the Taliban, it could be Tehran 1979.

What do you think Afghanistan’s new rulers will do when they hear the money from the International Monetary Fund has stopped and the former president emptied the country’s coffers before fleeing to Dubai? What will the international consequences of this fiasco be?

The naive answer is, nothing much, as after South Vietnam’s disappearance in 1975. But that’s wrong. Defeat in Vietnam did have consequences, emboldening the Soviets and Cubans in southern Africa, East Africa, Central America and Afghanistan.

In the same way, this defeat will embolden China with respect to Taiwan, and Russia with respect to Ukraine, not forgetting the radical Islamists with respect to global jihad.

Anti-American regimes from Iran to Venezuela are exultant. And the Pakistani generals who did everything they could to give the Taliban shelter and supplies are gloating.

The debacle is also sending a shockwave through the American alliance system. Boris Johnson had to wait a day and a half to get Biden on the phone.

What of the domestic consequences? Biden may have assumed that cutting and running was what the American middle class wanted. The polls tell a different story.

A Politico/Morning Consult Poll conducted between August 13 and 16 showed support for withdrawal in Afghanistan at 49 per cent, down 20 points since April.

On Thursday, Biden’s net approval turned negative for the first time. Strikingly, the conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck was able to raise more than $20 million in less than three days to his ‘Nazarene Fund’ to rescue Afghan Christians.

Americans may say they would prefer to get out of overseas entanglements. But the images of a baby being thrown over the razor wire by a desperate mother – and the numerous reports of degrading mistreatment of women by the Taliban – are not easily ignored. Give defeat and desertion a human face and the American public is roused from its slumber.

The obvious irony of all this is that, 20 years after the worst terrorist attacks in its history, the US government is wilfully recreating the conditions that made those attacks possible. But the bigger irony will be if Joe Biden’s epic fail ends up paving the way to every liberal’s worst nightmare, worse even than a second 9/11.

If this is how the Biden presidency dies – much more like Jimmy Carter’s than Nixon’s or Ford’s – then make no mistake about who stands to benefit. There, waiting in the wings, is the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, the man whose Afghan exit strategy Joe Biden so foolishly embraced: Donald J. Trump.

l Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His latest book is Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Penguin).

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