Last year, many of us called on President Donald Trump not to withdraw from Afghanistan, as he seemed intent on doing. We argued that it would be a humiliating surrender to an enemy we had already defeated and a disastrous error. President Joe Biden has now implemented the withdrawal, and the consequences have been as disastrous as feared.
President Trump’s policy and President Biden’s decision were not required by any facts on the ground. The United States and Afghanistan had achieved a strategic balance. The number of American soldiers there had been brought down to less than 3,000 from a wartime high over 150,000, and not one of our troops had been killed in battle for more than a year.
That is because they and we were no longer at war in Afghanistan. Our mission there was to counter terrorists who want to kill Americans and to give backup support to the Afghan government and military, which were building and defending their nation.
President Biden must have understood part of what would be lost if we withdrew when, in June, he raised with Russian President Vladimir Putin a plan to essentially reconstitute our counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan to a friendly neighboring country in Central Asia. Putin naturally objected. Yet President Biden went ahead with the pullout anyway.
The inevitability of a rising anti-American terrorist threat from Afghanistan as a result of our withdrawal has already become clear just days after the Taliban victory. On Sunday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the threat from ISIS to Americans in Afghanistan is “real, acute and persistent.”
That is why, as I watch the heartbreaking scenes of human suffering, death and desperation in Afghanistan, I keep saying, “None of this had to happen. The decision to withdraw was tragically unnecessary.”
I’ve known President Biden for more than 40 years. He is a good and caring person and an experienced and skillful elected official. I am sure he is deeply troubled by the harmful consequences of his decision on people in Afghanistan and must be asking himself how it could have gone so wrong.
If the United States were a parliamentary democracy, it is quite possible that this Biden government would fall. But we are not. The Biden administration has been in office only seven months and has about 3 ½ years to go. The president’s priority now to evacuate as many Americans and friendly Afghans as soon as possible is, of course, the right one. But there is something else he can do now for our country and himself.
There is an urgent need for President Biden to initiate a review of the decision-making process of his White House and administration in this matter, including the advice he received from his top aides, as well as the planning for the evacuation, which was clearly and outrageously inadequate.
There are tough questions President Biden must ask, including:
- Why and how did he make the decisions he did? Did he ask for, and listen to, the opinions of people who were critical of his long-held desire to withdraw from Afghanistan?
- Was he well-served by those in his administration who advised him and implemented his decision? If not, should they be removed?
Answers to these questions would advance the national-security interests of our country in the 3 ½ years of the Biden presidency ahead and restore the credibility of the president and his administration at home and abroad.
Joseph I. Lieberman, a former US senator from Connecticut and the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States, is an advisory board member of the Counter Extremism Project.
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