‘Bald-faced lie’ in Biden’s speech


“I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.”

So said Joe Biden yesterday, during a speech in which he attempted to pass the buck to anyone other than himself for the catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan.

He picked two scapegoats for the Taliban’s swift conquest of the country: former president Donald Trump, and the Afghans themselves.

In one case he was being disingenuous; in the other, downright insulting.

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Let’s start with the insulting one.

“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” Mr Biden said.

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

“We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force some 300,000 strong.

“We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force. We provided close air support.

“We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Variations of this victim-blaming popped up repeatedly throughout the speech. In Mr Biden’s telling, the Afghan military lacked the will to fight back against the Taliban as it swept across the country. He all but called the Afghans cowards.

After 20 years of helping American forces and fighting alongside them, at great cost to themselves, they deserved more respect from the US President.

The Afghan army had borne the brunt of the war since December of 2014, when the US scaled down its presence and assumed the less dangerous role of supporting, advising and training Afghan forces.

This is the most up-to-date death toll from the Afghanistan War: 2448 US soldiers, 3846 US contractors, 1144 other coalition soldiers, and about 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police. That’s on top of almost 50,000 dead civilians.

The Afghan army undoubtedly had its problems, including corruption, but its soldiers proved their will to fight repeatedly. They were the ones on the front lines these past six-and-a-half years.

Here’s what Mr Biden didn’t say. All those things the US had been providing the Afghan military – intelligence, air support, logistics, maintenance, soldiers’ salaries – abruptly stopped in April, when he announced his withdrawal timeline. The American military’s focus immediately switched to organising its own exit.

So, at the start of the fighting season in Afghanistan, Mr Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan army, leaving it to fight the Taliban alone when the enemy was, in his own words, “at its strongest militarily since 2001”.

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Why weren’t the Afghans prepared to fight without US support, you might wonder. Hadn’t the Americans been training them for years, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process?

These are good questions, and the US military needs to answer them. It appears to have trained the Afghans to rely on American logistic support without teaching them how to provide that support for themselves.

Matt Zeller is a US Army veteran and a co-founder of No One Left Behind, a non-profit group “committed to ensuring that America keeps its promise to our allies who risked their lives for our freedom”.

“The idea that the Afghan military should be blamed for this – do you know how many casualties the Afghan military took in an average year? More than the United States did in 20 years,” he told MSNBC after Mr Biden’s speech.

“When you’re not getting paid on a regular basis, when you’re not getting fuel, when no one is supplying you with ammunition, and yet you’re still showing up to the fight? How dare us blame these people for not having the audacity to survive a Taliban onslaught.”

So yes, the Afghan army did fail to resist the Taliban. Yes, it could have fought harder these past few months. Faced with death, some commanders abandoned the cause.

But it’s absurd for Mr Biden to criticise the Afghans without acknowledging his own country’s role in contributing to their downfall.

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His scapegoating of Mr Trump is more defensible, but it’s also a blatant attempt to deflect scrutiny from the incompetence of the withdrawal.

“When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, US forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1,” Mr Biden said.

“The choice I had to make was either to follow through on that agreement, or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.”

He said the second option would have required him to send thousands more American troops back into combat, and back into danger.

It is true that Mr Trump negotiated a terrible peace deal with the Taliban in February of 2020, which promised a withdrawal of US forces 14 months later without getting much in return. He did this without the Afghan government’s input.

His administration even suggested the Taliban could become partners in the fight against terrorism, which is about as naive as me enlisting the mice in my walls to fight against poor hygiene.

“The Taliban have now made a break. They’ve said they will not permit terror to be thrust upon anyone, including the US, from Afghanistan,” said secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

As part of the peace deal, the Trump administration pressured Afghanistan to release 5000 Taliban prisoners, and it reluctantly gave in. Many returned to the battlefield.

The guy who signed the agreement for the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, had already been freed from a Pakistani jail at Mr Trump’s request so he could lead negotiations. Baradar is now expected to be Afghanistan’s new president under the Taliban’s rule.

Surprising practically no one, the Taliban violated the terms of the deal within months of signing it, renewing its attacks on the Afghan army and failing to renounce al Qaeda.

Mr Trump did not deviate from his plan to withdraw, however, and drew down America’s presence in Afghanistan to 2500 personnel before leaving office.

I’ve run you through all of this background to stress that, when Mr Trump has a go at Mr Biden for screwing up in Afghanistan, he’s being a monumental hypocrite. Under his plan, the US would have withdrawn months sooner, with even less time to prepare.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Mr Trump was bragging that Mr Biden “couldn’t stop” the withdrawal process he had started. He criticised the administration for taking too long.

He has since been reduced to insisting things would have turned out much better under his plan, despite the shorter time frame. Somehow.

And yet, Mr Biden is just as complicit as Mr Trump, if not more so. The withdrawal has happened, and been botched, on his watch.

He could have chosen to rip up Mr Trump’s deal with the Taliban. He had every justification; it had blatantly broken the conditions set for America’s withdrawal.

Instead Mr Biden went through with that withdrawal, albeit delayed by a few months. That was his decision, and his alone. He bears responsibility for how it has turned out.

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“We planned for every contingency. But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” he said yesterday, “this” being the Taliban’s rapid advance.

The scenes we have witnessed at Kabul International Airport this week are not compatible with the idea that America planned for “every contingency”.

Nor is the fact that, as I write this, thousands of American citizens still stuck in Afghanistan are being told their safety cannot be guaranteed.

“Please make your way to Hamid Karzai International Airport at this time,” they were told in a message from authorities today.

“Please be advised that the United States government cannot guarantee your security as you make this trip.”

This was White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s revealing answer today when asked to guarantee that Americans and Afghan allies would be evacuated if they were still stranded past the end of this month.

“Our focus right now is on doing the work, the task at hand. And that is, day by day, getting as many American citizens, as many (Afghan visa applicants), as many members of vulnerable populations who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes.”

No guarantee, then.

Those Afghan visa applicants, by the way, are now in mortal danger. They could lose their lives because they helped the US. Some might escape the country. Not all.

“There was such a profound, bald-faced lie in that speech: the idea that we planned for every contingency,” Mr Zeller said.

“I have been personally trying to tell this administration since it took office, I’ve been trying to tell our government for years that this was coming. We sent them plan after plan on how to evacuate these people. Nobody listened to us.

“They didn’t plan for the evacuation of our Afghan wartime allies. They’re trying to conduct it now, at the eleventh hour. The thing they were most concerned about was the optics of a chaotic evacuation. Well they got exactly what they were most concerned about, by failing to do what was right when we could have done it.

“We had all the people and equipment in place to be able to save these people months ago, and we did nothing.”

Yesterday five different US officials told Reuters the military pushed to do more to evacuate vulnerable Afghans weeks ago.

“We could have done a lot more to help. The administration waited too long,” one said.

Joe Biden spent a lot of time yesterday justifying his decision to leave Afghanistan, arguing the US can’t fight another country’s “civil war” forever.

OK. But that’s not really the issue here. The fundamental problem is the incompetence with which the withdrawal has been executed, leaving America’s allies, as well as its own citizens, at the Taliban’s mercy.

That is entirely on him, and there is no sign whatsoever of him taking responsibility. He has only offered excuses.

Sam is’s US correspondent | @SamClench

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