Keeping our word

After a botched start, Biden seems to be trying to keep our promise to the Afghans who helped us, but he’s got a perilous path ahead — and tough political calculations.

A deep thank you to everyone who read my earlier piece on the tragedy of Afghanistan. I know it was long, so kudos to those who made it through. The first day of my very first job out of college was on 9/11. I was driving into work, nervous and excited about my first real journalism job, when I heard on the radio that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers.

I still often think about the people who were also just settling into their jobs that morning. Many in the Twin Towers and Pentagon were at work early. Maybe they, too, were excited about something they were working on. Maybe they just loved their jobs — the way I would come to have the privilege of loving mine.

Then they died in what would become one of the worst attacks on the country.

So in the nearly 20 years since, I’ve done my best to keep up with Afghanistan even when it often fell off the radar. Perhaps it sounds trite and self-centered, but trying to fully understand the nuances of our “war on terror” — both before and after 9/11 — felt like the minimum I could do to honor those who lost their lives that day and all the years since then.

Over those two decades, what I’ve learned is that like its people, Afghanistan defies easy categorization — just as the conflict defies an easy explanation. A litany of actors played a role in the fall of Afghanistan — some of them craven, some clueless, some scared, but many others well-intentioned (alas, we know what the road to hell is paved with).

But we are we are now, and as I argued in my last piece, President Biden has a sacred duty to evacuate not only Americans, but also the thousands of Afghans who helped those Americans at tremendous risk to themselves and their loved ones.

We’re not duty-bound to stay and save Afghanistan, but we are duty-bound not to leave our allies behind, and I suspect members of our military would wholeheartedly agree.

Trump failed in this duty. He didn’t even try to do anything about the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans or Iraqis who’d been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for years. If anything, he slowed the process down with his anti-immigrant policies.

And now members of his administration are cynically distancing themselves from the deal they brokered with the Taliban — a rushed, faulty arrangement designed to give Trump an excuse to get out of the country. (Remember those 5,000 Taliban prisoners the Trump administration pressured President Ashraf Ghani into releasing as part of the negotiations? Guess who helped the Taliban’s lightning offensive to retake the country?)

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lambasted Biden for the chaotic withdrawal, conveniently leaving out the fact that he left Biden with a mammoth backlog of SIV applicants. Meanwhile, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s tweet that “negotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil” is the height of chutzpah considering she supported dealing with that devil while in office.

President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters after delivering remarks on the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on July 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Hannah Foslien)

Regardless, Biden owns the Afghan exit. The Monday morning quarterbacking of how he could’ve managed that exit better will continue long after the Super Bowl.

But what Biden can do now is finish our commitment with dignity and evacuate every one of the 80,000 SIV applicants and their families out of Afghanistan (or as many as humanly possible).

And that seems to be what he’s doing. It’s been somewhat heartening to see evacuations pick up pace. In remarks today, Biden said 13,000 people had been airlifted out Afghanistan since Saturday. He vowed to bring every American home, while not abandoning the Afghan interpreters, translators and others who helped us.

To that end, he said the U.S. will significantly expand bases used for evacuations after an air base in Qatar reportedly reached capacity. These include numerous bases in the region and possibly around the world.

Biden is also being more candid with the public, saying, “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or … that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”

If Biden manages to patch up his bungled withdrawal and we avoid another 9/11-style attack, I disagree with the prevailing Beltway wisdom that leaving Afghanistan will hurt Biden. The majority of Americans have been clamoring to get out for years. And by the time the midterms roll around in 2022, Afghanistan will be a blip on the radar for most voters more concerned with the pandemic and economic recovery at home.

Ironically, instead of criticizing Biden for not getting enough Afghans out, now some conservatives are warning that Biden is going to bring too many of them in.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson recently warned that the number of refugees resettled here will swell into the millions (when at the time we’d evacuated all of 2,000). “So first we invade, and then we are invaded,” he said, proving once again his general awfulness as a human being (and poor math skills).

In fact, the Vietnamese we welcomed as refugees have become prosperous members of American society — as I’m sure Afghans will be. (Sweet revenge would be if one of those Afghans, perhaps a brave journalist, becomes a media mogul who puts Carlson out of business.)

So far, claims about Afghans overrunning the country have been confined to the likes of Carlson because many Republicans support the evacuations.

But Trumpian Republicans have a knack for whipping up anti-immigrant fervor, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump himself ratchet up the fear-mongering by claiming that terrorists are among the Afghan refugees. Laura Ingraham already insinuated this by calling refugees unvetted, when in fact they’ve been going through the screening process for years.

Trump also claimed the military is evacuating Afghans ahead of Americans — adding to his long-running list of lies.

Biden has deftly avoided the trap of giving blowhards like Carlson (and, well, Trump) bandwidth by responding to their nonsense. But perhaps he should make an exception here and go on the political offensive by communicating to Americans why not abandoning our allies is both a moral and strategic imperative — while calling out MAGA conservatives for their lack of patriotism. Perhaps he could even have one of the many American military veterans working to bring over their Afghan fixers explain why it’s the right, and smart, thing to do.

I have faith the American people will listen. Just because Americans don’t want to stay in Afghanistan doesn’t mean they’re unsympathetic to the plight of Afghans. And I believe they’ll forgive the president if he stays in Afghanistan past the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — as long as he clearly communicates to the public what the endgame is: Get our Afghan friends out and quickly get out (without pinning himself down to a concrete deadline, which always gets presidents into trouble).

We’re already hearing that European forces have crossed Taliban lines to rescue civilians. It’s something the administration needs to consider given that the Taliban are keeping Afghans who qualify for evacuation (and face death if they stay) away from the airport.

Yet on Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that: “At this point, we don’t have the resources to go beyond the airport compound.”

Bull. We have far more resources than the Europeans.

But I admit military incursions may not make sense — yet. Every military action, after all, carries a butterfly effect of potential bloodshed.

At the moment, with evacuations proceeding, it would be counterproductive for the U.S. to go beyond the airport in Kabul because any provocation might trigger a larger confrontation that halts evacuations, or drives the Taliban to shut down checkpoints leading to the airport, also halting evacuations.

Right now, quiet diplomatic pressure on the Taliban is the best strategy — and Biden still has lots of leverage.

As I wrote earlier: “The Taliban are on the verge of getting everything they’ve wanted. If we make it clear that we’ll get out of their way, but not before we evacuate a certain amount of people — and we’re willing to fight to get them out — they’ll step aside so they can finally be rid of us.”

We can also capitalize on our key point of leverage: money, which always talks. The Treasury Department has already frozen most of the $9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in the U.S. The IMF is also holding off on dispersing hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds. And the administration could use its financial clout to cut off the international aid that Kabul depends on to survive.

It’s a dangerous strategy because it could further plunge the country into a humanitarian disaster. But again, if we make it clear to the Taliban that withholding the billions of dollars they need to govern is only temporary and contingent on the evacuation of Afghan interpreters and their families, I believe the leadership will cave because it wants to firmly establish its Islamic republic. The last thing it needs — as it tries to gain legitimacy both at home and abroad — is a financial meltdown.

Biden then has to quickly ensure that bureaucratic holdups don’t prevent those Afghans who have made it to the airport from getting on a plane (something he’s made rapid, if not belated, progress on).

As Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps vet, said: Just get people on a plane and worry about the paperwork later. (Someone should send a memo to Laura Ingraham clarifying that only fully vetted refugees come here. Those who haven’t completed their interviews go to third countries.)

And if third countries (such as possibly Qatar) get cold feet about accepting any more refugees, the U.S. has plenty of sticks and carrots to pressure them. It shouldn’t hesitate to wield them. This is one problem worth throwing money at.

But the window for all this is incredibly tight because Biden cannot allow a major foreign policy distraction to jeopardize his $1.2 trillion infrastructure and $3.5 trillion social spending packages that are the centerpiece of his domestic agenda — which he needs Congress to pass in the fall.

It may sound like a cold political calculation, but these are the realities of governing. And it’s not callous to prioritize a legislative agenda that could significantly improve the lives of millions of Americans — lifting them out of poverty; allowing families to send their kids to college; giving our seniors health coverage to see a dentist or get their eyes checked; and taking steps to curb the emissions that are fueling climate disasters far beyond our borders.

Biden only has a few weeks to focus on Afghanistan before pivoting to the congressional battles over his two spending bills, funding the government and lifting the debt ceiling. That means if diplomatic pressure on the Taliban fails, Biden should flex America’s military muscles with special ops missions, helicopter rescues and limited offensives to get as many Afghans out as possible. This could include fighting off the Taliban who’ve ringed the perimeter of the airport if they continue terrorizing Afghans, retaking enough territory to ensure safe passage for evacuees.

Biden is right such a move might have unintended consequences, but he also promised that “any disruption of our operation at the airport will be met with swift and forceful response.”

The president said he hasn’t ruled out more aggressive measures to rescue stranded Americans. But he’s demurred when asked if that applies to Afghans as well.

It should.

The key is to strike while the iron is hot — because although Americans are sympathetic now, those feelings will fade as the news cycle moves on. The public will be much more understanding of forceful military action in the next few weeks than later in the year.

However, once troops have officially left Afghanistan and if Biden’s legislative agenda manages to make it through Congress, the president should consider airstrikes to destroy the drones, Black Hawk helicopters and other weaponry the Taliban seized from Afghan government forces. Those helicopters and drones may not be capable of reaching American shores, but we still have lots of American military personnel in the region.

Every step Biden takes is fraught with risk because at any point, a military operation could devolve into a Bay of Pigs or Black Hawk Down scenario, which would haunt him far more than the chaotic departure of Afghanistan would.

The president is walking the knife edge of greatness or ignominy. His priority is helping Americans, but I believe he genuinely wants to help Afghans as well. I can only hope he somehow figures out a way to do both.