Amid Afghan Chaos, Blame

Terry Schwadron
5 min readAug 16, 2021

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 16, 2021

And now, with the inevitable, but quickened collapse of Afghanistan, comes the blame game and the need to use national embarrassment for political gain.

Call it mistaken national pride or a constant need for a fall guy, Americans always seem to need to personify their collective distaste, particularly if the messages along the way never fully matched the reality.

We see it all the time: When the baseball team drops out of contention, people call to fire the manager. When covid starts to spread again after substantial anti-vax resistance, you hear that it is time for Dr. Anthony Fauci to go. And now after four presidents have threatened to leave Afghanistan, and one finally does, keeping the deal his predecessor made, now it is Joe Biden who is taking the political heat.

As David Sanger of The New York Times notes, “Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan,” in particular for the imagery of a chaotic departure from the embassy Kabul that all-too-familiarly recalls another flight from Saigon in an earlier generation.

Just days after Biden promised last week that we would not be seeing rooftop evacuations by helicopter, there were exactly those images. The declaration that the Taliban would not overrun Kabul was dead wrong.

And so, despite declaring the end of a 20-year war that Americans and friends could never win, Biden now is tagged as the guy who did it badly. Republican opponents are already crowing for Biden’s political punishment, even for his resignation.

As Sanger notes, “After seven months in which his administration seemed to exude much-needed competence — getting more than 70 percent of the country’s adults vaccinated, engineering surging job growth and making progress toward a bipartisan infrastructure bill — everything about America’s last days in Afghanistan shattered the imagery.”

Targets for Blame

Want to blame someone for Afghanistan? It’s not hard to find plenty of others to stand by Biden.

How about an Afghan army that just laid down its guns or ran off in mass numbers rather than face Taliban fighters emboldened by the prospects of takeover? There was nothing new here. The tendency to overestimate the value of an effective Afghan national defense has been with us since 2001.

What about Afghani President Ashraf Ghani simply leaving town and fleeing the country rather than leading a military stand against the Taliban or refusing all along to participate in negotiations with the Taliban?

How about blame for a U.S. and allied intelligence set-up that never has seemed able to properly judge a realistic response by either the Taliban or the Afghan leadership? The evidence seems plain that assessments have been wrong for years, and that we were throwing American lives and dollars at serious risk for two decades.

What part does an Afghan history of taking American money for illicit purposes play in the ultimate breakdown, for Americans to have paid local warlords to rent their armies and loyalties until they weren’t?

What part of blame falls to American allies who pulled out early, to Russian and Pakistani under-the-table help for the Taliban, for international jihadist movements who have kept the Taliban in the game, for all the mysterious sources of income for the Taliban through 20 years of exile?

What part of blame falls to an American public that insists that we conduct wars without lives lost, that wrap up neatly after a few months and that will not stand for anything that looks like Americans serving as the world’s police? What part of blame falls to Congress members of both parties and every politicians running for office in the last 20 years for either ignoring Afghanistan or being willing to withdraw immediately or keep American troops there for another 50 years? There’s been no goal, no policy, no end — till now.

Then there was the part played by Donald Trump who invited the Taliban to Camp David as if he alone could solve the Afghani puzzle, and, instead, authorized the pullout with specific dates. To hear Biden, it was Trump who is mostly to blame for the pictures we’re seeing from Kabul, and to hear Trump, Biden forgot the basic rules of letting the U.S. military set ground rules for withdrawal from the field.

Of course, of the two presidents, it was Trump who treated. Pentagon generals with disdain. Of course, Trump set no conditions of the sort he now insists were in place.

What we got this week was a speedy denouement in Afghanistan for a host of reasons. If you need to blame someone, there are plenty of candidates.

Bad Intelligence All Around

Mostly, the Biden White House apparently thought they had time, maybe 18 months or so, based on what have turned out to be very bad intelligence assessments. The U.S. “wildly overestimated the capabilities of an Afghan Army that disintegrated, often before shots were even fired.” What the Taliban lacked in numbers, they made up for in strategy, determination and drive.

That’s on Biden and U.S. intelligence, of course, because he is in the job right now.

But for 20 years, it’s been true of anyone sitting in the White House. To train partisan political blame on Biden alone is hardly worthwhile nor honest. If Trump were in the White House, this would have been the same. If this were six months from now, it would be the same.

With better intelligence, could we have stepped down our withdrawal better? With a reliable partner in Afghanistan, would we be able to have seen a more orderly pullout? With an actual Afghan army response, would this end to two decades of war for Americans have looked any better?

With better information, would Biden have provided a better solution?

What we’re responding to is surprise that it all went south so fast, and that the evacuation now is happening in chaos.

There is a lot to mourn here about leaving people in Afghanistan to an incoming Islamic government that may well prove even worse in the long run than we are assessing now. The human costs, the specific impact on women, the failure to properly account for those who have helped us along the way all weigh heavily, as do open questions about whether the Taliban will be open to protecting a new generation of international terrorists.

Blame ourselves for misconceptions of reality. And then, maybe take a look at the array of other problems we face at the same time, from covid to climate to an systems that keep unfairness alive: Expect a realistic assessment for them, too, rather than magic for solutions.