Vietnam shadow hangs over Biden decision on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (thehill): President Biden is facing a potential foreign policy and humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan as the Taliban makes rapid gains, capturing major cities and prompting concerns over the safety of U.S. diplomatic personnel and civilians on the ground.

The Taliban took control of Kandahar and Herat on Thursday, the second- and third-largest cities in Afghanistan after Kabul, followed by Lashkar Gar on Friday. The Biden administration is sending about 3,000 troops to the country to help evacuate diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, as well as Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas for helping the United States during the war.

Despite the quickly deteriorating situation, Biden is poised to see through the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of August. The White House believes it’s the best move in a situation with no perfect solution, and officials believe it is a decision that will garner public support even as it attracts intense scrutiny from Republicans and national security hawks.

But deep concerns have been raised by figures in the wider national security establishment, and administration figures on Friday were struggling with comparisons between Kabul and the fall of Saigon.

“This is a government we built, financed, and protected,” said a former State Department official who served across multiple Democratic and Republican administrations. “And we’re walking away from them and in the process we’re saying they’re not up to the fight. I think the messaging that’s being done right now is really worrisome because it’s like, ‘it’s not our fault.’ “

Statements Biden made just last month that compared the situations of Afghanistan and Vietnam are also coming under new scrutiny.

In July, Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops and rejected the notion that a Taliban takeover of the country was “inevitable.”

“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese Army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability,” Biden said during a speech in the White House East Room. “There’s going to be no circumstances where you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the United States from Afghanistan.”

The White House has offered a consistent message on the withdrawal, even as the Taliban advances at a rate that has astonished many experts on the region.

“Ultimately, the Afghan National Security Defense Forces have the equipment, numbers, and training to fight back. They have what they need,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, echoing Biden’s own words a day earlier. “What they need to determine is if they have the political will to fight back, and if they have the ability to unite as a — as leaders to fight back. And that’s really where it stands at this point.”

So far, it appears the U.S. bet on Afghan forces is not paying off.

The Taliban has seized control of multiple provincial capitals and major cities, and only three major cities in Afghanistan, including the capital of Kabul, remain under government control.

In a sign of looming concerns over Kabul, a city of more than 4 million people, the Biden administration announced Thursday it will send about 3,000 troops to help evacuate diplomats from the U.S. Embassy there. The U.S. had about 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan before Biden ordered a withdrawal. About 650 of those remain in the country securing the embassy and airport.

Biden was briefed Friday by his national security team on the latest developments in Afghanistan, a White House official said.

The White House seems to also be banking on continuing public support for ending the war in Afghanistan. Recent polls show support for Biden’s position.

A poll conducted July 7-26 by the Chicago Council found 70 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of Republicans surveyed, support withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, while 29 percent oppose doing so. A May poll from Quinnipiac University found 62 percent of Americans supported that timeline.

“I give him a lot of credit for the way he described his decision in a transparent way and said, ‘Look, we’ve done all we can do,’” said Emily Harding, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Now, what I also think he’s banking on is the American people don’t care about what happens next. And I think it’s going to be very hard to ignore a lot of the imagery that’s going to come out of Afghanistan in the next few months,” added Harding, who previously worked as a deputy staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Biden inherited a Trump-era agreement in which the Taliban would uphold certain commitments such as denying safe haven for al Qaeda, and the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1. At a time when the new administration was undoing orders of the old one almost daily, some questioned why the agreement to leave Afghanistan remained in place.

The president in April announced the U.S. would be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, a date that was later moved up to the end of August.

Biden, who as recently as Tuesday said he has no regrets about the withdrawal, has remained steadfast in his commitment to end America’s longest running war, believing another generation of soldiers should not be sent to fight a battle with no clear endgame in sight. Some in the White House believe the chaos that has unfolded in recent days only underscores the futile nature of remaining in Afghanistan.

 “The Taliban’s rapid gains in Afghanistan underscore the futility of permanent occupation,” Justin Amash, a former independent congressman, wrote in a tweet shared by White House chief of staff Ron Klain. “The United States wasn’t able to meaningfully shape circumstances through 20 years of war. We’d have seen the same results had we pulled out 15 years ago or 15 years from now. End the wars.”

Klain and other White House officials have also highlighted statements of support from veterans groups that have argued in favor of ending the conflict in Afghanistan.

“A continued American military presence in Afghanistan is not required for our safety and will not fix the systemic problems that are driving the current levels of violence in the country,” Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America, said in a statement. “Leaving American troops deployed in Afghanistan would only mean more loss of American life and limb in pursuit of unattainable objectives that aren’t in our national interest.”

The swift advancement of the Taliban and Biden’s insistence on ending the U.S. commitment on the ground has opened the floodgates of criticism from Republicans and national security hawks who believe the administration has walked into an avoidable disaster that could erase hard-earned humanitarian gains in Afghanistan that benefit women and children in particular.

“Unless President Biden adjusts course quickly, the Taliban is on track to secure a significant military victory,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Thursday statement. “The latest news of a further drawdown at our Embassy and a hasty deployment of military forces seem like preparations for the fall of Kabul. President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975.”

Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as former President Trump’s national security adviser for 14 months, argued the national security and humanitarian benefits of leaving a small force in Afghanistan outweigh the relative financial and personnel costs.

 “As [the Taliban] commit mass murder in the city squares of these cities, as they bulldoze girls’ schools, as they eliminate all of the gains that were made after the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001, should we just stand idly by?” McMaster said during a Wilson Center event on Thursday.

Biden has not spoken about the situation in Afghanistan in front of cameras since Tuesday, when he said he did not regret his decision to withdraw troops. The president will spend the weekend at Camp David, but it’s not clear if he will meet with national security advisers or Pentagon officials to assess the situation.

Experts have said it’s difficult to predict whether the Taliban will swiftly move to take Kabul, but they warned that the group’s increased influence in the country could lead to horrific images of government officials being killed and the imposition of conservative laws that target the rights of women and girls in particular.

“We’re not only kind of leaving Afghans who have made a commitment to us in the lurch, but we’re kind of leaving Afghanistan to the mercies of Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and I just think that this is going to be bad,” the former State Department official said. “But having said that, I can’t help but wonder if the president didn’t get the politics of this right in the sense that Americans don’t seem to care right now.”