It’s important to take a moment to reflect on the year we live in: 2021. Yes, it seems that we have somehow ended up in the worst possible timeline, given the increased challenges throughout the past year and a half. But this year also marks an important milestone in American history, given that it has been nearly two decades since 9/11. Regardless of our varying deposition towards “The War on Terror”, it’s safe to say that this date changed our understanding of both the Middle East and US foreign policy for generations to come. Another couple of months later, the United States, and other coalition allies, toppled the Taliban of Afghanistan due to their sheltering of the mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden. Mission accomplished, right? Fast forward nearly twenty years later; the United States and her allies have decided to leave Afghanistan after attempting to build a democratic government in the region. Within mere weeks, the capital of Kabul has fallen; thousands of innocent Afghans attempt to flee from a resurgent Taliban, desperately clinging onto the outside of planes leaving Kabul only to fall to their deaths. So long as we are willing to engage in partisan discussion, we arrive at a question that has popped up frequently: who is more responsible, as President of the United States, for the debacle that occurred in Afghanistan, Joe Biden or Donald Trump?
Given the fact that the fall of Afghanistan had occurred under Joe Biden, it would be natural to place the blame squarely upon him. There is some truth to this statement; President Biden had secured the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan to occur on September 11th, 2021, assuring members of the public that we wouldn’t see Afghanistan devolve into another South Vietnam. Perhaps a poor choice of words, given some of the similarities many political commentators make about the situation now. President Biden seemed confident in this statement, noting that there was no way 300,000 Afghan soldiers would be defeated by 75,000 Taliban, per intelligence reports he was receiving. However, it should be considered that, although these forces existed on paper, in reality, the Afghan National Army may have had their troop numbers inflated due to corruption, according to CNN and Foreign Affairs. This suggests that Biden was operating with faulty intelligence as to what was actually going on in Afghanistan. For his part, President Biden has mostly struck a defensive tone, stating that he was obligated to complete this withdrawal due to a previous deal struck by former President Trump (more on this later). This references the Doha Agreement, a peace deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February of 2020 to remove US troops from Afghanistan and encourage cooperation between the Afghan government and the Taliban while renouncing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Biden claims that his hands were tied with this agreement, stating that he was obligated to follow through with this deal. Importantly, however, an aide to chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad argued that Biden could have backed out of the Doha Agreement should both the Taliban and Afghan government not reach an agreement, which, predictably, they didn’t. Of course, Biden acknowledged to George Stephanopolous in an interview that withdrawal, peace agreement or not, was inevitable, meaning that even without the Doha Agreement this situation could have unfolded regardless. Naturally, the ensuing crisis that we currently face in Afghanistan, with US equipment in the hands of the Taliban and both Afghan refugees and American citizens begging for an escape at the Kabul airport, owes some responsibility to President Biden.
Naturally, the more opportunistic among us would kick President Biden while he’s down in a moment of crisis. Cue: former President Donald Trump, laying the blame of Afghanistan solely at the feet of President Biden. Yet, when one stops to ignore the failures of Biden’s intelligence operatives and the opportunities to renege on the Doha Agreement, it isn’t too surprising to see that Trump’s hands in the situation aren’t clean. As previously mentioned, the Doha Agreement was reached between the United States under President Trump and the Taliban to facilitate the withdrawal of US troops, with Trump’s goal to have all American troops pulled by May of 2021. Unfortunately, for the guy who wrote “The Art of the Deal”, Trump’s Doha Agreement was surprisingly weak in attempting to negotiate with the Taliban. Firstly, even though the peace deal stipulated that the agreement was valid so long as the Taliban acted in good faith and that both parties could agree, the Taliban nonetheless continued insurgent activity even after the signing of the deal. Such fighting became increasingly rampant even after the deal was signed, leading to some of the bloodiest combat in the past 20 years, according to the Afghan government. Should Trump have really struck such a great “deal”, this would likely have meant the deal was broken, except Trump continued the evacuation of troops as planned. Perhaps more pressing was a controversial prisoner swap that occurred between all parties; in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security forces, the former administration and the Afghan government agreed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Unsurprisingly, many of these same Taliban prisoners, such as Abdul Ghani Baradar, would go on to lead the offensive against the Afghan government that saw their collapse. Wow, who knew that releasing senior officials of the Taliban from prison would only strengthen the Taliban? Needless to say, Trump isn’t blameless in this current disaster we see unfolding day by day.
Of course, could the crisis really be attributed to one man? It might be fair to say that such attempts are somewhat reductionist, as America’s foreign policy in Afghanistan was not the result of one president, but rather four administrations and their attempts to seek justice while maintaining a weak grasp over the area. Afghanistan has a reputation for being the “graveyard of empires”; shortsighted and hawkish foreign policy will only spell doom in the long term, especially in such distant and hostile land. Perhaps Trump and Biden are not to be completely blamed, as Afghanistan was inevitably going to end in catastrophe thanks to such policies. While there are many political figures who could be blamed for the state of Afghanistan, one thing is certain: twenty years, thousands of US troops and resources wasted, and many Afghan civilian deaths have led to what seems like a return to the pre-war conditions.
Thumbnail Credit: Sabawoon Nezami, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons