Who can say what the consequences of America’s retreat from Afghanistan will be for our country as a world power? The safe bet is that it won’t be good. That dusty little corner where the Middle East meets Asia has brought terrible pain for great powers since the 1830s. Indeed, the Soviet retreat there in 1989 was one of the key events in unraveling Moscow’s once vast-empire.
Of course, the United States is not a neighbor of Afghanistan, as the Soviets were. Our similar flight from Vietnam and abandonment of our allies there to certain slaughter in 1975 didn’t stop America from winning the Cold War just 15 years later. Maybe, like our British cousins long ago, a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan will not foreshadow the end of our role as the world’s dominant power, only a resolve to never again maintain a permanent force in that woebegone land.
In the short term at least, though, the geopolitical consequences will be unhappy. The collapse of the U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan military and the enslavement of women and girls promised security and opportunity under the American-backed government in Kabul will be received as weakness by our foes in the Muslim world as well as by Russia and China. It will also surely be evidence of our unreliability to allies across the region and the world.
But we are not retreating from Afghanistan for any reason related to America’s strategic interests. Quite the opposite. It’s pure domestic politics. When then-President Donald Trump started the process last spring, it was part of an election-year push to deliver on the promises he made in winning his first term. While the withdrawal lacked majority support even before the realities of retreat were evident, the issue was hugely important for Trump’s nationalist base. Having been frustrated by congressional Republicans and sometimes even his own administration in efforts to align with Russia, bug out of Syria, etc., Trump wanted to prove to “America First” adherents that he really was delivering on “promises made, promises kept.”
For a decade, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of self-identified Republicans have told Gallup that they believed the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a mistake. That probably wouldn’t have been a large enough segment of the GOP for Trump to ultimately have delivered on his promises of withdrawal had he been re-elected. While the issue is very important to the Orbánists and other very online populists and cable news junkies who occupy so much of Trump’s attention, it seems unlikely that he would have proceeded with the withdrawal once the entirely predictable chaos that followed began. A lame-duck president with a party facing midterms would have been under tremendous pressure to relent on the pullout deal he cut with the Taliban. And if he had insisted even after the consequences started piling up this summer, Trump likely would have faced full-scale revolt in his own party. Foreign policy was the one area where Republicans were consistently willing to buck Trump.
But Trump lost, and left the Afghan withdrawal deal waiting for his successor. President Biden has been having lots of fun taking advantage of Trumpian standards on deficit spending, executive authority, etc. But Trump’s Afghan deal was a particularly prized plum. The same Gallup numbers that show a small but persistent opposition to the Afghan war among Republicans show a large and equally persistent opposition among Democrats. For many years, more than half of Democrats have called the war a mistake. Barack Obama as president tried doggedly to find a way to satisfy the majority of his party on the matter. But he knew that if Americans saw pictures of heavy-laden U.S. helicopters fleeing advancing Taliban and heard stories of teenage girls turned into concubines for Islamist militiamen, Republicans would nail his political hide to the wall.
While Afghan withdrawal is important to many Democrats and some Republicans, looked at in the broader political landscape, Americans were substantially unconcerned about the ongoing occupation. Obama surely knew that if he had gone out on that limb, Republicans would have eagerly sawed it off behind him. Not unreasonably, Biden concluded that Trump having made a deal with the Taliban left the way open for the new president to proceed toward a long-held Democratic objective with Republicans muzzled by their support for their former president’s deal. That was more than a little naïve.
Trump and his loyalists are having no trouble attacking Biden for the Afghan debacle on the grounds that the president is not executing the Trump plan as drafted. As if there could be an easy plan for fleeing a landlocked country 7,000 miles away under assault from homegrown radical forces. Trump couldn’t even leave Washington without violence breaking out. It’s hard to imagine he would have done better in Kabul. But a Republican Party that refuses to vote to raise the debt ceiling to accommodate deficit spending they themselves authorized is hardly the kind organization that is going to be troubled by reversals of standards. They were going to hammer Biden over Afghanistan no matter what Trump ever said or did. It makes political sense for them to do so.
Americans’ sense of embarrassment and frustration over the Afghan debacle will grow in the coming days and weeks. The thought that so many of our troops died or were gravely wounded for a mission that now ends in ignominy—and for rank political purposes—will be a serious liability for Biden and Democrats going into 2022. Republicans are developing a powerful case of amnesia as it relates to all events that took place before January 20, 2021. They will have no compunction about battering the blue team for carrying forward Trump policies. Voters, who have low expectations for consistency and honesty among politicians to begin with, will not hesitate to side with flip-floppers as long as they’re flopping in their direction.
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor to The Dispatch.