Biden’s cold response to Afghanistan’s collapse will have far-reaching consequences

Opinion by the Editorial Board

July 3, 2021
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When President Biden chose in April to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September, we were among those who judged that the result would be a disaster for the country’s 38 million people — and in particular, its women. Now, that tragedy appears to be unfolding more quickly than even many of the pessimists imagined. In recent weeks, Taliban forces have captured dozens of districts in a nationwide offensive, surrounding several provincial capitals and blocking key roads into Kabul. On Tuesday, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, met with reporters and warned with remarkable bluntness that “civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized,” adding: “That should be a concern for the world.”

It ought, at least, to be a concern for Mr. Biden, who inherited a difficult situation from President Donald Trump but chose to pull the plug on the U.S. mission rather than fix it. The president ought to be reconsidering the swift withdrawal he ordered in light of the incipient crumbling of an Afghan government and army that the United States spent two decades helping to build. Instead, he has been cold to the country’s plight. Last month, according to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Biden decided against slowing the withdrawal from the main U.S. air base in the country, Bagram, which some U.S. officials favored; the pullout was completed this week. Last Friday he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House in what was cast as a show of support, only to declare that Afghans would have to “decide their future.”

That future is likely to be bleak, if current trends continue. As U.S. advisers and air support melt away, Afghan army units are being wiped out by the Taliban, or are surrendering without a fight. In desperation, the government has invited ethnic militias to remobilize, risking a return to the anarchic conflict and banditry that plagued the country in the 1990s. Even with that support, the government may not be able to hold on; a U.S. intelligence community assessment that surfaced last week said it could fall within six to 12 months of the U.S. departure.

If that happens, not only Afghans will be at risk. According to the intelligence community and a study commissioned by Congress, al-Qaeda could reestablish bases in the country. Waves of refugees are likely to pour out, destabilizing neighbors such as Pakistan and massing at the borders of Europe. U.S. rivals such as Iran, China and Russia could draw the conclusion that Mr. Biden lacks the stomach to stand up for embattled U.S. allies such as Iraq, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Mr. Biden rightly ordered up plans last week for an evacuation of Afghans who worked for the United States. But he ought to be doing more for those still fighting to save the country. He should allow U.S. air power to be used to support Afghan army units even after the withdrawal. Ways must be found to keep the Afghan air force aloft even after the withdrawal of foreign maintenance contractors. And agreement must be reached with Turkey on using its troops to keep the Kabul airport open; without that, the U.S. Embassy could be forced to close.

Mr. Biden has long been a skeptic of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and he has stuck to that position even as the number of troops and expenditure dedicated to it have drastically shrunk. His view has been that the war against the Taliban is unnecessary and unwinnable. But the descent from stalemate to defeat could be steep and grim. We wonder whether he has fully considered the consequences.

Biden’s cold response to Afghanistan’s collapse will have far-reaching consequences