Clifford D. May
You don’t need to be a brilliant geopolitical strategist to understand that the United States should be the best friend – and the worst enemy – any nation could have. Following the events of recent days, the U.S. will be perceived differently: “harmless as an enemy but treacherous as a friend.”
Many politicians and diplomats share blame for this outcome, as do those deep thinkers who fancy themselves proponents of “responsible statecraft,” based on the dangerous fiction that “forever wars” end once Americans stop fighting them.
But since the buck stops in the Oval Office, history will most vividly remember the terrible decisions President Biden made in the months leading up to the 20th anniversary of the most catastrophic terrorist attacks ever on American soil.
The commander in chief had options. None were good. Least bad would have been to continue to frustrate the ambitions of the Taliban and al Qaeda, which also would have ensured that Afghans in Kabul and other cities would retain a measure of freedom and security. That would have required leaving a small residual force in Afghanistan, a force that would train, advise, and assist – not engage in direct ground combat.
Or, if Mr. Biden was determined to trash everything that blood and treasure achieved over the past two decades (e.g., no additional catastrophic attacks on the U.S. homeland by al Qaeda, 60 women in the Afghan parliament), he could have gradually weaned the Afghan armed forces off their dependence on American assistance (e.g., for intelligence and close air support) as they continued fighting our common enemies.
Instead, he abruptly cut them off – and did so in the middle of the summer “fighting season.”
If nothing else, surely President Biden had the resources to organize an orderly retreat, one that would not require frantically sending troops to Afghanistan (having just pulled troops out of Afghanistan) with a helicopter evacuating the U.S. embassy and Afghans desperately clinging to American aircraft – Saigon, once again. And it’s not over. Not by a long shot.
Let me back up and mention that in the first paragraph above, I’m quoting Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian who would be chagrined but not surprised by what’s now happening in Afghanistan.
Professor Lewis, who died too young (three years ago at 101), was among the first to warn of the threat posed to what we used to call the Free World by militant revanchists in what we now call the Muslim world.
Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote, was “the culmination of a series of attacks throughout the 1980s and ’90s that had brought virtually no response.” Self-proclaimed jihadis saw this not as restraint on our part, to be respected, but “fear and weakness” to be exploited.
Such enemies of America, he added, “are encouraged by ‘experts,’ who keep repeating the mantra: ‘There’s no military solution.’”
The Taliban knew that didn’t apply to them, yet Mr. Biden, with characteristic overconfidence and poor diction, reassured his fellow Americans that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
It’s no secret that the Taliban routinely perpetuate terrible atrocities: throwing acid in the faces of little girls for the “crime” of going to school; beheading “apostates;” castrating political opponents, and hanging them, alive, from lampposts; staging mass executions in sports stadiums with the audience encouraged to cheer.
Yet even as the Taliban was seizing females between the ages of 15 and 45 to be “married” to their fighters, and executing Afghan soldiers who had surrendered, presidential press secretary Jen Psaki was telling reporters that the Taliban “has to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community.”
News bulletin: There is no Santa Claus, no Tooth Fairy, and no “international community” committed to Western values. As my colleagues at FDD made clear in a recently published monograph, authoritarian, despotic, and anti-American regimes, not least the People’s Republic of China, are increasingly dominating the U.N. and other international organizations.
Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan already has said he prefers the Taliban over “the former puppet government of Afghanistan.”
Diplomats from Beijing already have met with Taliban officials, following which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised the Taliban’s military and political prowess.
The Global Times, a newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, told its readers that the Taliban is “quietly transforming to alleviate concerns of neighboring countries and to improve their international image by becoming friends.”
Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the hopefully named Center on International Cooperation, commented: “It would be unfortunate if the U.S. interprets this as a great power competition and tries to undermine what China is trying to do.”
News bulletin: China’s rulers will not mind if the Taliban restores al Qaeda to its previous status in Afghanistan, so long as both groups focus on the satanic Americans, rather than the genocidal persecution of (Muslim Turkic) Uighurs in (Chinese-occupied) Xinjiang, which lies just across Afghanistan’s northeast border.
I’ll conclude by sharing one more of Professor Lewis’ observations. “The Roman Empire and the medieval Islamic Empire were not conquered by more civilized peoples,” he said, “they were conquered by less civilized but more vigorous peoples. But in both cases what made the conquest – with the Barbarians in Rome and the Mongols in Iraq – possible was things were going badly wrong within the society so that it was no longer able to offer effective resistance.”
The assignment I imagine Professor Lewis giving his class: Discuss parallels between the downfall of those ancient civilizations and what is happening right now in America and other nations of what we used to call the Free World.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times. Follow him on Twitter @CliffordDMay. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.