Biden alone on Afghanistan? 5 key reasons

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here opening your week, and of course, yes, we're still talking about Afghanistan. I really wanted to talk about the international angle. It's been so much criticism of the United States from outside the US, including most disturbingly, from core US coalition allies in NATO that had been of course, have been fighting with the Americans on the ground in Afghanistan. Why did we get that wrong?


You've heard from President Biden, his perspective that this was going to be a disaster no matter what, that at any point, if it was a month earlier, a month later, it was still going to be a disaster. So if that's the case, why not coordinate with the allies? How do you get to the point where Armin Laschet, the likely next Chancellor of Germany, and again, this is a country that has been aligned with the US on the ground in Afghanistan, saying that this is the biggest debacle since the founding of NATO. How do you have such extraordinary opposition from the UK parliament? I mean, if it's going to be an ugly baby, as I've heard from Biden advisers, why would you want to raise it by yourself? Why wouldn't you want friends and family, the coalition together with you?

I mean, when I have something at Eurasia Group, even if I know it's a decision we have to take and it's a very difficult decision, then you get buy-in, you don't just drive on all by yourself. You talk through this with your colleagues, and you make sure that everyone's rowing in the same direction. Why didn't we do that? Especially with a president who wants to be seen as a multilateralist, closer to allies, who rejects the America First unilateralism and transactionalism of the Trump administration, an Atlanticist himself with a cabinet that's both experienced and has deep and strong ties across the pond. Some of the strongest of any administration in recent history. I think it's worth asking, it's not because they're stupid and it's not because Joe's demented and too old and can't figure it out. Man, you hear that from the MAGA types, but that's not, that's not a useful response.

If you really want to understand what's going on, I think it's worth breaking down, I do think it seems like they recognize they've made a mistake. Back on Friday, Biden made a point in his speech of saying that he had talked directly with Merkel and Macron and Boris Johnson. He was late, but he said it, and now today, an emergency meeting of the G7. So I do think they are trying to now make this better, do damage control and fix it going forward, but we still need to know why. So I'm trying to break it down and I think there are a bunch of things that are going on here. It's easy for me to say, well, I would have done it better, but I mean, how did this administration not? If I were in their shoes, what challenges would I have faced?

So number one, I do think bad intelligence is a piece of it. I think truly no matter what Biden says, they didn't actually think that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was going to be as problematic as it turned out to be. Some of that, and they're spinning it now, and I think that since they already had made the decision and the people reporting the intelligence knew they had made that decision, they weren't going to be knocked off of it, that there is this intrinsic human desire to align yourself with the decision. So you create more hope and that hope becomes increasingly the analysis that you put forward that well, the Afghan fighting forces will be able to stand up for a longer period of time. Of course, if that had happened, then the fact that the Americans had withdrawn as a unilateral decision would not have been borne as badly by those the Americans are fighting with. So that's number one.

Secondly, centralized decision-making. The Biden inner circle is incredibly loyal. They've worked together for a long time, they're very smart, but they think they're smarter than they are. They actually are, really believe that they need to make the decisions themselves. I see this broadly in terms of not engaging in policy decisions until they're made with the various departments, whether it's State or Treasury or CIA, or the Pentagon, that it's the National Security Council, it's the National Economic Council, and it's the Chief of Staff, and it's very, very tight. I've seen complaints about this from inside the administration. So if they're not talking to the own administration, I mean, if they certainly weren't engaged with the senior generals in the way that, for example, the Trump administration White House, the Obama administration White House were, and that was part of why you got into this negotiation that led to not pulling out, but instead extension of the US presence on the ground. Well, if they're not doing that, not talking to allies is a bit of that, right? So I, I think that some of this is the centralization of the Biden administration policy process compared to other administrations.

A third is domestic politics. We do need to recognize that US domestic politics have become more divisive significantly in the 20 years while we've been fighting in America's longest war in Afghanistan, and the need, the perceived need and the real need of US policy makers to focus more on domestic politics has grown accordingly, to the extent that Biden has a foreign policy doctrine, that doctrine is a foreign policy for the American middle class. Not just make foreign policy comprehensible, it's not just a communications job, but it's actually do things that make the American middle class feel like they support you. That's what the foreign policy should be. It's a very inward-looking foreign policy, it's not talking much about the allies. Leaving Afghanistan was seen to be kind of critical in that regard. So I think that others outside the United States don't necessarily appreciate just how much more inward focused US foreign policy has become, irrespective of whether it is under a Republican or a Democrat. I think that's now a reality that people are increasingly grappling with. Doesn't mean America is no longer a superpower, but it means very clearly the US really doesn't want to be the world's policeman, the US really doesn't want to be the architect of global trade or the promoter of global values. That's a key underpinning of the GZERO world, as I think of it.

Fourth, it's all Trump's fault. A lot of people in the Biden administration saw what they inherited in terms of Afghanistan, the unilateral negotiations between the Trump administration led by secretary of state, then Pompeo, and the Taliban. Remember, the Afghan government wasn't a part of these negotiations. In that regard, it's kind of their Israel-Palestine discussions, right? They came up with an Israel-Palestinian peace plan that the Israelis signed onto. The Palestinians were never a part of the engagement, right? So there was no sense that this was going to work on the ground in Afghanistan. You weren't engaged with both parties together, and the Taliban was stronger. Of course, 5,000 Taliban prisoners were released, and they had taken territory, and the American troops were drawing down, even though the Taliban was not living up to their side of that bargain. That reality, one where Biden basically said, "Look, I mean, these decisions have already been made and they're on Trump, and so we're stuck with that." Now, of course, the allies would say, "Well, we don't need to respond this way to that," but within Biden's own administration, the view that Trump is obviously to blame for everything that's gone on wrong in the recent months on the ground in Afghanistan, I think made for a convenient scapegoat. When the decision to pull the plug was made, that you don't necessarily need to discuss this more broadly, that damage had already been done.

Then finally, and I think this is under-appreciated, is the pandemic. This Biden administration has been in office only as a pandemic presidency. That means they're not meeting in-person, they're largely meeting by Zoom. In many of those zoom meetings when you have more than one person in one of the rooms, say you've got like three people at State and three in the White House, they're wearing masks on the Zoom calls. They're not engaged face to face, they're not really getting to know each other's personal responses to these crises. It's email and virtual. I mean, that's challenging as we all know, in terms of running our organizations just steady state, but suddenly when you have a serious crisis, the idea that you're going to respond as effectively as you normally would, when your people are remote and they're not talking to each other informally, that's a real challenge. I do think that some of the horrible optics of Biden being at Camp David and having these conversations with his other advisers while they were in other places, as opposed to all around one table in the situation room, well, that's the way they've been actually doing the business of the administration for the entirety of the administration so far. It didn't feel abnormal to them, but it looks really abnormal to us. Now it's not the NBA bubble where they're all playing normal games, right?

So I think all of those things are significant reasons why the United States ended up booting this so badly, irrespective of how you think about the execution on the ground, how bad it would have been no matter what they did, in terms of how much time and how long they maintain the troops and whether they left Bagram Airbase when they did, all these things. It is very clear that not engaging with the allies at all until that decision was made, and the US taking it all on themselves, is now playing out quite badly for the Biden Administration. So I think it merited a little bit of a deeper dive.

So that's it for me, I'll talk more broadly about context and how we got here and where we're going from now in the future, but I hope everyone's doing well and I'll talk to you all real soon.
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