“There is going to be no circumstance in which you are going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
That statement last month was President Joe Biden’s terrible misstep, a promise he should have known he couldn’t keep.
The president, former vice president, and longtime senator evolved with the times. Biden voted to authorize both the Afghanistan strike in 2001 and the Iraq war in 2002, and then he turned against them both. He never should have made that statement, about embassy roofs; he should have known better.
But when it comes to Afghanistan, nobody knows better.
Biden is the president who inherited the Afghanistan crisis from three predecessors: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and disgraced, twice-impeached Donald Trump (arguably, you could go back to Ronald Reagan). Trump, the draft-dodging coward, saw an Afghanistan withdrawal as a campaign promise he could easily keep. He didn’t know how easily: He’d be gone; his successor would have to make good on it; and he could bleat out “press releases,” in place of tweets (he’s rightly banned), ridiculously blasting Biden.
Roughly 30 hours after Kabul—the nation’s capital, and also its main airport—fell to the Taliban, Biden came out into the East Room and defended his decision. It was tempting to say he “finally” came out, only because so many elite journalists acted like he did it belatedly. It must be said: Elite journalists know a lot of people who served and worked in Afghanistan (even I know a few) and thus took this awful fall hard; it was bracing for Biden to essentially ignore that elite sentiment, while also expressing sadness for those who might not survive this break.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I learned the hard way: There was never a good time to withdraw US forces.” There are no truer words about this conflict, except those framed in this Biden question: “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?”
Biden then conceded what his intellectually dishonest GOP enemies charged: “The scenes we’re seeing in Afghanistan are gut-wrenching…. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated. The Afghan military collapsed…. We could not provide them with the will to fight for their future.”
But he insisted, correctly: “The developments of the past weeks reinforced that this decision was the right one.”
I saw people on television call that victim-blaming. I have no idea whether what some people I admire, mainly from my cable TV days, are insisting is true: that Biden could have waited a short period of time and evacuated many worthy American allies. Everything we’ve ever been told about Afghanistan is quicksand. Those who claim it would have taken a week would eventually have to admit it would have taken a month, and those who’d claimed it would take a month… well, you get the point.
A lot of what sounds like victim-blaming sounds like what should have kept us out in the first place.
But maybe nothing could have kept us out.
On October 7, 2001, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds (pay no attention to the steroids rumor behind the batting box) broke the record for Major League Baseball home runs. I was there, at whatever the hell Pac Bell/AT&T/Oracle Park/Sad Silicon Valley PlayPen was named at that point. Before the game ended, though, I had to go back to my office at Salon to cover the invasion of Afghanistan.
I no longer lived in her district when Congress authorized military force against Afghanistan 20 years ago, but “Barbara Lee Speaks For Me” was everywhere. She spoke for me, across the bay in San Francisco at the time, as the lone congressional voice against a military strike on Afghanistan, for harboring Al Qaeda, in the wake of 9/11.
But I know that, like almost everyone at the time, I overreacted to 9/11—given that we’ve now lived through more than 200,000 9/11s thanks to Covid. Still, I was a New Yorker, albeit living in San Francisco at that point—and San Francisco was said to be a target too. My daughter got sent home from her public elementary school that day, as all the kids there were. A friend had to pick her up; I was working.
That day felt like the end of the world as we’d known it, but I don’t think it was. I think that day came sometime in the past 18 months, during Covid and an insurrection that’s still not being taken seriously. I just remember thinking on 9/11: “Our generation hasn’t had a challenge like the Depression or World War II. I guess this is it.” It wasn’t, but 9/11 changed everything for journalists, I think a lot of us will tell you. I’d say the 24/7 news cycle began that day. I think “chyrons” did too—those distracting scrolling headlines at the bottom of a cable news screen, which was already distracting enough. News about places most Americans knew almost nothing about: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan. I remember assigning remedial reading backgrounders to be written by our best staffers at Salon—whether they worked in news or entertainment. We were all catching up, at the time.
And we are still. I still don’t know what the answer was, in Afghanistan—except for what it wasn’t, which goes back to Vietnam, and even earlier: We propped up corrupt people; we sent in money that went to warlords and mercenaries. Even in the last few days, it was reported that the Taliban was paying “Afghan soldiers” to lay down their weapons.
Still, our hearts hurt watching scenes of Afghan people chasing airplanes on the way out. Even more, watching people drop to their death from wheel-wells and elsewhere, trying to flee. I expect our hearts to hurt more when we inevitably see Afghan women being murdered by Taliban thugs. I read Lynsey Addario’s piece with self-recrimination.
But I respect Biden for finding his way to an exit. I hope he doesn’t retreat, but honestly, it’s all so bad I don’t think he can.