Why We Shouldn’t Congratulate Biden on Afghanistan

The media criticizes Biden for the wrong reasons, but it doesn’t mean he should be praised.

Biden’s decision to pull the American troops from Afghanistan put a bitter end to his honeymoon with the liberal press. But only because the mainstream press seems to be pulling the rug from under the President’s feet doesn’t mean that he is your friend.

On August 15, on the verge of Kabul’s fall, Declan Walsh, a chief correspondent of New York Times tweeted: “For those who lamented ‘forever wars’ — is the phrase anything more than a comforting cop-out for epic failures of policy and the imagination? — here’s what the end looks like.”

Walsh’s tweet perfectly captures what seems to be the dominant strategy of the liberal media: turning the criticism of “forever wars” — not a catchword invented by “peacemongers,” by the way, but a shorthand for the hawkish foreign policy of the US as well as the influence of the military industrial complex — on its head by the means of disseminating, in words and images, heartbreaking scenes from the Kabul exodus.

While the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan is portrayed as a deliberate abdication of responsibility (“cop-out”), supposedly justified by the US officials’ awakening to the idea that “forever wars” are futile, it is precisely this self-assigned “responsibility” with which the critics of the so-called “forever wars” correctly take issue.

Thus, we are shown tragic scenes from the Kabul airport on a loop and not the countless images of twenty years of suffering inflicted on the Afghan people by the war: night raids, scared faces, families torn apart, houses crushed by airstrike, children without limbs.

Nothing has fundamentally changed.

The idea that Biden decided to withdraw from Afghanistan under the influence of his (probably non-existing) pacifist Socialist friends is of course comical. But it is equally comical to take this decision as a bold “progressive” move, an effort to curtail the influence of the military industrial complex or a fundamental reimagination of the US foreign policy. Anyone who is remotely familiar with Biden’s voting record, especially those to his left who competed against him in the Democratic primaries, should know this.

To see why the withdrawal from Afghanistan signifies nothing faintly like an end to “endless wars” we need no speculation. In his address after the last American soldier left Afghanistan, Biden made sure to make it clear that the indefinite “war on Terror” is here to stay: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

He, then, clarified how the war is to be continued: “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.” The world witnessed the unfolding of this “new” strategy in fact already shortly before American troops left Afghanistan, when US drone strikes in retaliation of the ISIS-K attack killed ten civilians, including seven children.

Perhaps to the American public the phrase “over-the-horizon capabilities” sounds like a new strategy. To us Middle Easterners, they are very well known.

Biden’s defense is indefensible.

In the same address, Biden referred to the evacuation operation in Kabul as “a mission of mercy.” The word “mercy” suggests that those Afghans who were able to board a plane at Kabul airport should be grateful for the opportunity to leave their home behind.

But if the evacuation operation was by any measure an act of American “mercy,” it is only the mercy of saving people from the hell created, in chief part, by the US itself: twenty years of blood and fire only to set the time back to the 1990s — only this time, thanks to the US-led coalition forces, the Taliban are drunk on victory and equipped with the state-of-the-art armaments, and the anti-Taliban resistance in a precarious situation.

Biden’s reference to the exit operation as “a mission of mercy” is part of the administration’s desperate attempt to create a counter-narrative to the “fiasco” narrative pushed by the mainstream outlets.

The Biden administration’s propaganda-like defense is by no means surprising. What is shocking is that some of the arguments pushed by Biden’s team are reiterated by some major American leftist circles.

In his address, Biden took pride in that the exit operation was “one of the biggest airlifts in history, with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. That number is more than double what most experts thought were possible.” He immediately added: “No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it, and we did it today.”

The defenders of Biden’s exit cite this number to argue that the operation has been, despite what the media suggests, by every objective standard successful. But they should ask themselves how comfortable they feel about the same number being sold as a heroic act of humanitarianism, achievable only by American exceptionalism — not least because it is the same attitude which characterizes the mindset of those foreign policy strategists who push for these “endless wars.” What some perceive as “endless wars,” others perceive as “endless mercy.”

Biden’s exit mission was probably not a “fiasco,” but also not an act of heroism. No “rescue” operation can whitewash twenty years of pain inflicted on the Afghan people, and the misery in which they are left alone.

Another line of defense is that the US invaded Afghanistan only to eliminate al Qaeda (or in a stronger version, only to kill Osama bin Laden). This is far from the truth. What in the first place turned the US campaign in Afghanistan into an “endless war” was that it was a “war on Terror.” As George W. Bush said in September 2001: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.  It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Bush characterized his war in the most universal terms possible: a war between “Freedom” and “Fear,” between “Justice” and “Cruelty.”

The “war on Terror” was sold to the world, and more importantly to the people in Afghanistan as a war that will not only secure the US homeland, but also “liberate” the Afghan people. Many Afghans put their lives on the line for that reason.

For Biden, and his defenders, to claim that “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago” is to imply that the US has no responsibility towards Afghans for the past twenty years (and more than twenty years, since the US helped create the Taliban in the first place).

Even if the US doesn’t want to be a “benevolent empire” in the future (let’s hope so), it must still be held accountable for the past decades in which it pretended to be one.

We ought to hold those in power accountable.

The mainstream media’s portrayal of Biden’s exit operation as a “fiasco” diverts people’s attention from two decades of war and fundamental problems in US foreign policy, and instead highlights a single moment, a single administration, and a single president. I understand the impulse to debunk this effort by some progressives — public backlash from the mainstream media is often a leverage to bully politicians into preserving the status quo.

But many leftist commentators in the US whom I respect have inadvertently become part of making a counter-narrative, which is equally problematic.

The narrative that an era of military interventionism has come to an end is simply false. Pulling the US troops from Afghanistan is at best only a symbolic win for the critics of “forever wars,” one which took a heavy toll on the Afghan people and those in the Middle East who, just like the US working class, struggle for “freedom from fear and want.”

If the Kabul exodus marks the end of an era, it is at best the end of troop deployments, not the end of “endless wars.” There will be more “preventive” military spending. There will be more investment into “what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities” of the US military. There will be more civilian blood spilled.

The US had no responsibility to export “democracy” to Afghanistan and the Middle East (as well as other regions in the world) but is responsible for the destructive role it has played in Afghanistan’s and the Middle East’s history, for helping stabilize the Taliban and equipping them with American weapons and aircrafts.

You cannot be focused on defending Biden against the mainstream media in this situation if you’re a critic of “forever wars” and the American military empire.

What we need to focus on is a progressive internationalism and solidarity with the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan.

We must hold those in power accountable — always, not just when it’s convenient.

Mir Ali Hosseini is a doctoral candidate in British and American Studies at the University of Freiburg. He was born and raised in Iran.