(CNN) – The instincts that drove President Joe Biden’s decision to end the United States presence in Afghanistan by August 31 were revealed by what he said before announcing it to the American people.
In a televised statement billed as an update on an extraordinary airlift that has now saved more than 70,000 people, Biden held the latest House ballot on his $ 3.5 billion for jobs, social spending, family leave and health care plan.
“We are one step closer to truly investing in the American people, positioning our economy for long-term growth, and building an America that surpasses the rest of the world,” Biden said.
It was a jarring start to a speech about his initially chaotic process of ending a war that was once an example of nation-building abroad rather than at home, a process likely to bequeath a wave of individual human tragedies.
But Biden was making clear that despite an exit likely to leave thousands of Afghans eligible for passage to the United States trapped under brutal Taliban rule, along with – potentially – some Americans, he believes the priorities of Americans and their own political perspectives are ultimately elsewhere.
This will enrage and discourage political opponents, veterans, intelligence professionals and others who believe that the United States is breaking the sacred promise of a safe haven for many Afghan translators and others who saved American lives during a 20-year war that seems unlikely. that they can leave before US forces do.
But it is in line with Biden’s calculation of US national interests that underpins his foreign policy and his reading of the national mood amid a fierce pandemic, persistent economic ruin, and two decades of US global misadventures. .UU.
And it is closely related to another fundamental principle: that he will not send American sons and daughters to Afghanistan, or anywhere else, to die in what he believes is a futile effort that will not improve America’s central security.
The president still faces a nervous week as he waits to see if his strategy will work and possibly allow him to escape the long-term political damage at home from what in many ways remains a debacle abroad. Any death in American combat or serious terrorist attacks at the Kabul airport, where the evacuation is taking place, would turn a foreign policy crisis into a full-blown domestic political tornado.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that he’s eager to get out of there.
Little advantage, terrorist threats and political imperatives force Biden
Given that US forces are effectively held hostage to a hostile security environment, it was always unlikely that Biden would accept requests from allies such as Britain and France to extend operations beyond the Taliban’s deadline and his own of 31. of August.
Add to that the political restrictions he has imposed on himself and the overwhelming advantage of the Taliban, and Biden really had no other options.
Despite asking for contingency plans should he decide on a short-term extension, staying longer would force Biden to risk an open confrontation with the Taliban and the real danger of American casualties. To properly extract all Afghans on US visas, he would surely have to increase troops to expand the perimeter of the airport and possibly even try to retake Kabul. In fact, it would have to choose to vastly increase the risk of American lives to save Afghan lives after August 31.
I wasn’t going to do that. And it’s not clear that people would support him if he did.
In explaining why he was sticking to his date, Biden emphasized the serious and growing terrorist threat to the US and allied forces.
“Every day that we are on the ground is another day that we know that ISIS-K seeks to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said.
Challenging the Taliban after August 31 would only exacerbate the danger, especially after CIA Director William Burns apparently failed to secure an extension of the group’s tolerance for the US operation in secret talks with its leaders.
And according to Robert Baer, a former CIA case agent and CNN intelligence analyst, the Taliban had all the cards.
“At any moment, we have to understand that they could close the Kabul airport. All they would have to do is put a couple of mortars in the middle. The C-17s would turn around and they would have to leave. That is their protocol,” Baer said.
“So the Taliban are making the decisions. And there’s nothing we can do. If they say we have to be out by the 31st, that’s what we’ll have to do, unless we invade Afghanistan again, which I don’t see coming. “.
Refugees will be left behind
Now that the Taliban are saying they will not allow Afghan civilians to leave the country, Biden does not have the ability to force the surrender of eligible refugees and visa holders without ordering US soldiers to fight, a step he is reluctant to do.
By painting his decision to end the airlift by August 31 as an option, Biden also disguises the humiliating fact that he is an American president being imposed on by the Taliban, whose forces are far inferior to those he commands. but they enjoy a superior strategic position.
Throughout this crisis, there has been a strong impression that anger at the president of Washington’s national security, political and journalistic communities over the fate of Afghans facing possible death at the hands of the Taliban has not it has been shared more widely by the general population.
That is why Biden, as he has done throughout the drama, emphasized the main point that he is ending a war that he says went on too long and killed too many Americans after achieving his goals of degrading Al Qaeda ago. long time.
The acceleration of airlift, using dozens of American and allied transport aircraft, is likely to end up as one of the most astonishing and rapidly hatched foreign battlefield departures and logistics operations in history. Without a doubt, he is saving thousands of Afghans. And its success alleviated some of the political pressure inflicted on Biden by his team’s own mistakes.
But it is also the case that as operations begin to scale back in the next few days so that military forces can secure their own exit, the US is likely to break a promise to care for those who supported it for 20 years in the country. .
The White House says Biden stuck to the Aug. 31 date because “we remain on track to accomplish our mission.” But if the mission was to extract all applicants for special immigrant visas, along with their families, who could face retaliation from the Taliban, then there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Many American veterans, legislators, ad hoc groups, and others are still working frantically to save their former comrades.
There are several reports that Afghans are being prevented from reaching the airport. CNN’s Jennifer Hansler quoted a diplomat familiar with the situation in Kabul as saying there is a disconnect “between reality and politics.” The diplomat added that tens of thousands of people would be left behind due to the August 31 deadline.
On Monday night, after a classified briefing with intelligence officials, California Representative Adam Schiff, a Democratic White House ally, pierced the administration’s claims.
“I think it’s highly unlikely given the number of Americans that still need to be evacuated, the number of visas, the number of other members of the Afghan press, civil society leaders, women leaders,” Schiff told CNN’s Ryan Nobles. .
“It is difficult for me to imagine that all that can be achieved between now and the end of the month.”
And the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, lashed out at Biden during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead,” warning that people who worked for the United States will die. .
“When the door closes, I continue to uphold my statement: your hands will be stained with blood,” McCaul said. “They will execute them when we retire.”
Biden may not be so moved by the Republican attacks, even by McCaul, that they amount to fair criticism given the evidence. And the backlash against him, also led by a barrage of hypocritical statements from former President Donald Trump, which left his successor in a weak position to negotiate a withdrawal even earlier, would surely be even more vocal if any American soldier is killed or seriously injured. injured before or after August 31st.
As the final exit draws ever closer, Biden can negotiate a way out of the most dangerous crisis yet of his presidency, which raised questions about his judgment and the strategic acumen of his administration.
But history will continue to record a stain on his legacy that will not be erased by the partisan cheers of liberal journalists who attacked the national media for their on-the-ground coverage of the Kabul disaster.
While many Afghans will succeed in resettling in the US and third countries, the past few weeks will remain a parable of how ordinary lives often get cheap amid broader geopolitical forces and the ugly reality of war. . For those left behind, America’s withdrawal will reflect promises in the heat of battle that a president could not – or chose not to – deliver.