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1 Year Later: Biden’s Afghanistan fiasco lives on

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst

In 1961, after a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba failed spectacularly, President John F. Kennedy said of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, “Victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

Last week, President Joe Biden took a victory lap when he announced that the US had tracked down and killed its most wanted terrorist, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living in a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. Don’t expect a similar celebration on August 30, the first anniversary of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which ended the longest war in American history. Any realistic assessment of that action shows that it will long be seen as a defeat rather than a victory — and it’s likely no one will own up to the responsibility for the decision.

The US launched a war against Afghanistan in 2001 after the Taliban regime harbored Osama bin Laden, giving him the ability to plot and carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks which killed almost 3,000 Americans.

As US and NATO troops battled Taliban and al Qaeda forces, the new US-backed government in Kabul also presided over two decades of progress in Afghanistan. To be sure, Afghanistan wasn’t Norway, but it was becoming a somewhat functional, democratizing Central Asian state that saw striking progress in reducing child mortality and increasing life expectancy, one that provided jobs for women and education for millions of girls; it nurtured scores of independent media outlets, and held regular, if flawed, presidential elections.

All of that changed when the US began withdrawing and the Taliban took over the entire country on August 15, 2021. Women’s rights evaporated. They have no right to work, except in a narrow set of female-related jobs such as cleaning women’s toilets in Kabul; when they travel distances of more than 45 miles they must be accompanied by a male relative, and the Taliban have ordered women to stay at home and to cover themselves completely should they ever venture out. Their male relatives will be punished by the Taliban if women don’t follow these directives. Girls do not have the right to be educated after the age of 12.

On the Taliban’s management of Afghanistan, one data point suffices to underline the group’s gross incompetence: Around half of the Afghan population are today “facing acute hunger,” according to the UN.

On the Taliban’s respect for other ethnic Afghan groups: There is no evidence that the Taliban are creating an “inclusive” government as their leaders claimed they would. Pashtuns make up almost all the leadership of the Taliban, while other ethnic groups in Afghanistan such as the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks are almost entirely excluded from leadership roles.

On their respect for democracy: The Taliban, conveniently, don’t believe in elections. Instead, they are a theocracy; their leader is known as the “Commander of the Faithful,” a title that claims he is the leader of all Muslims. In the past year under Taliban rule, 40% of Afghanistan’s independent media outlets have closed.

In June 2021, I wrote for CNN, “We could see in Afghanistan a remix of the disastrous US pullout from Saigon in 1975 and the summer of 2014 in Iraq when ISIS took over much of the country following the US pullout from the country.”

That prediction, unfortunately, proved to be accurate; the American pullout from Saigon looked like a dignified retreat compared to the scenes of thousands of desperate Afghans trying to get on planes leaving Kabul airport last August. Some Afghans were so desperate to leave that they clung to the fuselage of a plane that was taking off — and two plunged to their deaths. On Aug. 25, 2021, 13 US soldiers and at least 170 Afghans were killed at the airport by a suicide bomber dispatched by the Afghan branch of ISIS. And the Taliban took over the entire country even before the last US soldiers had left Afghanistan.

Compounding Biden’s disastrous policy decision to completely pull out of Afghanistan was the botched handling of the withdrawal. According to a report about that withdrawal released in February by Republican senators sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first White House meeting to discuss evacuating Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan took place on Aug. 14, only one day before the Taliban seized Kabul and five months after Biden had first publicly announced the total US withdrawal from the country.

Biden patted himself on the back that the US military subsequently extracted 124,000 Afghans from Afghanistan, calling the operation an “extraordinary success,” which was like an arsonist praising himself for helping to try to put out a fire that he had started.

Following the Afghan debacle, Biden’s favorable ratings dropped to the lowest level of his presidency to that point to 46%. They have never recovered.

The Biden administration now faces a policy dilemma of its own making. Since so many millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation, Biden officials cannot completely turn their backs on Afghanistan. And yet, it’s hard to help Afghans without propping up the Taliban in some manner. The Biden administration has tried to ensure that all US aid to Afghanistan is administered in a way that it doesn’t end up in the hands of the Taliban, but realistically any help that the US sends to Afghanistan tends to help the Taliban remain in power.

This is surely one of the most spectacular own goals the US has ever scored.

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