Afghanistan: Four key failures
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:
Ian Bremmer here, and the unceremonious end to the longest military adventure, longest war in American history. Plenty of blame to go around for how this war started, was pursued, the money that was spent, the human lives that were cost, and certainly many, many books will be written about that. But for today, we have to look at the close, at the staggering incompetence of execution, to bring this war to a close, to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. A policy that I agree with, the actual strategy, that you have to either expand the presence or you have to pull out because the Taliban were gaining and were likely to take over with the status quo ante. But the execution has been an extraordinary failure. This is by far the most consequential foreign policy crisis that we have witnessed, I would say, since the Iranian hostage crisis and then the failed rescue. So, it's quite something. We've seen bigger domestic policy crises in the United States, heck, on January 6th. But from a foreign policy crisis, this is an extraordinarily big deal.
What went wrong? I would say there are four different types of failure of execution on Biden's watch here. Number one, the military and intelligence failure. The US intelligence agencies, at the time that Biden first made the announcement that they were going to withdraw all troops by August, September 11th, said that the Afghan defense forces would be able to hold off the Taliban for two to three years. After the Taliban offensive kicked in over the course of the last few days, the intelligence assessment dropped to two to three days. I have never seen that kind of intelligence failure in my career. Two facts here are truly breathtaking. Number one, the United States spent 20 years and nearly $90 billion training an Afghan force that refused to fight. And number two, after two decades of personally training Afghans on the ground, the United States still did not understand, in any way, the morale and the capabilities of the forces that they had trained.
Number two. A failure of coordination. And I've talked a fair amount about this, but it bears repeating. The United States fought alongside our allies for two decades, asked them to fight with us after 9/11, and they gladly and broadly agreed, and spent lives, fighting bravely, and lost lives fighting bravely on the ground. But when it came time to leave, President Biden did so alone, both looking at the decision making process, the actual announcement, and consideration of ongoing policies, like for example whether or not and how you're going to accept refugees and provide humanitarian support. Even things like the role of the ambassador on the ground, the US ambassador, acting ambassador over the weekend flees, leaves the country. The British ambassador, still there, actually working to get his people, his citizens out. How could we not be coordinating with our allies on something this simple? An extraordinary failure of coordination and American allies are pissed about it, and they're making that known. They were making that known privately over the past few months. They're now making that known very publicly.
Number three. A failure of planning. It's one thing to get the intelligence wrong and get the coordination wrong, but it didn't have to be such a disaster if there had been planning in alternative scenarios. Things don't always go the way you hope they're going to, and certainly the US military and intelligence historically has tried to put efforts in that regard. This is a stunning failure on the basis of that. Based on everything we know, we absolutely had a complete failure of planning here. The fact that the United States did this on our timeline and had to airlift in the troops from the mainland to assist in the evacuation, sending in more, 6,000, than the United States had withdrawn in the first place, the planning to provide the safety for the thousands upon thousands of Afghans who had helped the American forces has been abysmal, and many will be left behind. Many will surely die. All of that could have been done, should have been done, in the months leading up to the final withdrawal. It's extraordinary that it didn't happen.
And then finally, the communications failure. You've seen the videos by now that in selling withdrawal, President Biden, back on July 8th, assured Americans that it was highly unlikely for the Taliban to be overrunning everything and owning the whole country. He insisted that, "There's going to be no circumstance," I'm quoting here, "Where you see people being lifted off the roof of the US Embassy like in Saigon in 1975." These predictions unraveled in real time, and you still had Biden and the secretary of state and others in the White House making public statements that this was a success, which is a breathtaking thing to posit. The fact that President Biden chose to stay in Camp David, a working vacation, during this crisis and had a photograph of the conversation he's having with his national security advisors, none of whom are actually there in person with him, they're on a Zoom call, I mean at the time that I am filming this, we still haven't heard live from Biden with a speech to the American people as to how they got this so wrong. And that's pretty extraordinary too.
Now, I will say that as it stands right now, I don't believe that this crisis for the American people, or for Biden, rises to the level of Saigon in '75, and there are a few reasons for that. One is because the average American, not the politically engaged American that's on Twitter and throwing fusillades on foreign policy, but the average American doesn't really care about Afghanistan and really wants out, and for all of the human rights atrocities that we are going to witness in the coming weeks and months and years on the ground, it doesn't really move the needle for what is fundamentally a popular policy. Having said that, we are not through this, and this can get much worse. It is certainly possible that you will end up with firefights between American forces and Taliban on the ground. It's certainly possible Americans will be killed, beheaded, possible that you would see a kidnapping crisis, a hostage crisis on the ground. If anything like that transpires, then this is an Iran hostage crisis, again, and this could destroy the Biden presidency.
I think right now as it stands, domestically it plays out more like Obama's failed red line on Syria, where he says "Assad must go," and Assad goes nowhere. But internationally, it has more significance. American allies, who had hoped that America was indeed back the way that Biden said it was, feel like this is America alone, this is America unilateralist, this is an America that can't be trusted. And while the Chinese and the Russians, I do not believe that this puts the Baltics at risk or Taiwan at risk, I do believe that ideologically their ability and willingness to lean into the narrative of the US lacks legitimacy internationally is going to cause more damage with other countries around the world, will lead to more hedging behavior, does create more of a GZERO world, not the one that we really would rather be living in.
That's my view, and I'm sure I'll be in touch, but wanted to get this out to you. Be well, and let's hope for the best over the course of this week on the ground in Afghanistan.
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