August changed things; it wasn’t just a bad month. It left a lingering, still head-shaking sense of “This isn’t how we do things.”
We don’t make up withdrawal dates that will have symbolism for photo-ops with the flinty, determined president looking flinty and determined on the 20th anniversary of 9/11; we don’t time epic strategic decisions around showbiz exigencies. We wait for the summer fighting season to pass; we withdraw in the winter when Taliban warriors are shivering in their caves. We don’t leave our major air base in the middle of the night — in the middle of the night — without even telling the Afghan military. We don’t leave our weapons behind so 20-year-old enemies can don them for military playacting and drive up and down with the guns and helmets. We don’t fail to tell our allies exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it — they followed us there and paid a price for it. We don’t see signs of an overwhelming enemy advance and treat it merely as a perception problem, as opposed to a reality problem. You don’t get the US military out before the US citizens and our friends. Who will protect them if you do that?
The president’s people think this will all just go away and are understandably trying to change the subject. But the essence of the story will linger. Its reverberations will play out for years. There are Americans and American friends behind Taliban lines. The stories will roll out in infuriating, sometimes heartbreaking ways. The damage to the president is different and deeper than his people think, because it hit at his reputational core, at how people understand him. His supporters have long seen him as soft-natured, moderate — a sentimental man famous for feeling and showing empathy. But nothing about this fiasco suggested kindliness or an interest in the feelings of others. It feels less like a blunder than the exposure of a seamy side. Does he listen to anyone? Does he have any people of independent weight and stature around him, or are they merely staffers who approach him with gratitude and deference?
What happened with US military leadership? There’s been a stature shift there, too. Did they warn the president not to leave Bagram Air Base? Did they warn that the whole exit strategy was flawed, unrealistic? If the president was warned and rejected the advice why didn’t a general care enough to step down — either in advance to stop the debacle, or afterward to protest it?
Did they just go with the flow? Did they think the president’s mind couldn’t be changed so what the heck, implement the plan on schedule and hope for the best? President Biden’s relations with the Pentagon have been cool at best for a long time; maybe some generals were thinking: I can improve future relations by giving the president more than he asks for. He wants out by 9/11, I’ll give him out by the Fourth of July. It is important to find out what dynamics were in play. Because it’s pretty obvious something went wrong there.
The enlisted men and women of the US military are the most respected professionals in America. They can break your heart with their greatness, as they did at Hamid Karzai International Airport when 13 of them gave their lives to help desperate people escape. But the top brass? Something’s wrong there, something that August revealed. They are all so media-savvy, so smooth and sound-bitey after a generation at war, and in some new way they too seem obsessed with perceptions and how things play, as opposed to reality and how things are.
There has been a lot of talk about Mr. Biden and what drove his single-minded insistence on leaving on his timetable. Axios recently mentioned the 2010 Rolling Stone article in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff made brutal fun of Biden. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his 2014 memoir that President Obama told him, “Joe is over the top about this.” Mr. Obama himself, in his presidential memoir, wrote of Mr. Biden warning him the military was trying to “jam” him, “trying to box in a new president.”
People have been rereading George Packer’s great 2019 book on the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, “Our Man” (great not only as history but as literature). Holbrooke met with Vice President Biden one day during the first Obama term and they argued about Afghanistan. Mr. Biden dismissed Holbrooke’s arguments for protecting Afghan women’s rights as “bull—.” Their discussion was, according to Holbrooke’s diary, “quite extraordinary.” Mr. Biden said Holbrooke didn’t understand politics, that the Democrats could lose the presidency in 2012 in part because of Afghanistan, that we have to get out as we did from Vietnam.
There was politics in President Biden’s decision, and frustration. Mr. Biden had spent years in Afghanistan meetings, in the Senate during the Bush years, and later in the White House as vice president. He would have seen up close more than his share of military spin — contradictory information, no one with a sustainable strategic plan, and plenty of that old military tradition, CYA.
Afghanistan was emotional for him, for personal reasons. This would be connected to his son’s service in Iraq, and the worry a parent feels and the questions a parent asks. And maybe the things Beau Biden told him about his tour.
And I suspect there was plenty of ego in it, of sheer vanity. A longtime friend of his once told me Mr. Biden’s weakness is that he always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. I asked if the rooms are usually small, and the friend didn’t bristle, he laughed. I suspect Mr. Biden was thinking he was going to be the guy who finally cut through, who stopped the nonsense, admitted reality, who wasn’t like the others driven by fear of looking weak or incompetent. He was going to look with eyes made cool by experience and do what needed doing — cut this cord, end this thing, not another American dead.
History would see what he’d done. It would be his legacy. And for once he’d get his due — he’s not some ice-cream-eating mediocrity, not a mere palate-cleanser after the heavy meal of Trump, not a placeholder while America got its act together. He would finally be seen as what he is — a serious man. Un homme sérieux, as diplomats used to say.
And then, when it turned so bad so quick, his pride and anger shifted in, and the defiant, defensive, self-referential speeches. Do they not see my wisdom?
When you want it bad you get it bad.
This won’t happen, but it would be better for his White House not to scramble away from the subject — Let’s go to the hurricane! — but to inhabit it fully. Concentrate on the new reality of the new Afghanistan, the immediate and larger diplomatic demands, the security needs. Get the Americans out, our friends out, figure out — plan — what you would do and say if, say, next November there is a terror event on US soil, and a group calling itself al Qaeda 2.0 claims responsibility, and within a few days it turns out they launched their adventure from a haven in Afghanistan.
Don’t fix on “perception.” Focus on that ignored thing, reality.