US President Joe Biden decided what he thought about Afghanistan months ago, really years ago.
For more than a decade, Biden has advocated for the United States’ need to end its military presence in Afghanistan, but after that he has not had much power, as he was a senator with a single vote on Capitol Hill or the vice president advises.
But this year, Biden finally took power over the longest war in American history and insisted that troops withdraw from Afghanistan, with a deadline of August 31.
Despite the stunning collapse of the Afghan government, sparking a humanitarian crisis and fierce criticism at home and from traditional allies abroad, Biden has been steadfast, and at times defiant. He has taken responsibility, but has at times blamed his predecessor, Donald Trump.
After months of focusing largely on suppressing the pandemic and stimulating the economy, the chaos in Afghanistan created the first foreign policy crisis of Biden’s presidency, and temporarily cast a shadow over his other priorities.
His response provides a more complete picture of how Biden handled his work, drawing on the political sensitivity he has built as a veteran senator who has weathered the hiccups and scandals in Washington for decades.
The way Biden handles his decision to move forward to end the war is the product of nearly 50 years in public life, much of it spent studying the world. He persuaded voters to give him a try and now is the first time he has presented decisions rather than just opinions during a Senate hearing, he will be judged on the outcome which is not at all clear.
The incumbent president was known far more for his sympathy, but Americans now see a different side of Biden during this crisis: the face of a much tougher and sometimes impatient man.
Facing several setbacks that would have caused most politicians to back down and offer some measure of remorse, Biden has been more assertive this week.
He acknowledged that the Taliban had progressed more than he expected, but said – privately and in two presentations he made to the American people – that the rapid collapse of the Afghan government had validated his skepticism about the war.
“If the events of the past week prove anything, it is that ending the US military intervention in Afghanistan now is the right decision,” he said on Monday.
Biden’s decision revealed a cold realism in his view of American military power: American forces should not be used to promote American ideals abroad.
In his view, soldiers should focus more on the threats to the country, and that the economic and diplomatic forces of the United States are the right tools to defend its values abroad. It’s a sentiment that the White House thinks people agree with, after two decades of endless conflict, but it comes at a painful cost to the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped or thrived in the American occupation.
To his advisers, the president reiterated that his opposition to the 2009 troop surge, which was ordered by then-President Barack Obama, was one of his proudest moments in government.
That confidence, which some allies say sometimes border on stubbornness, has been a critical force in Biden’s political life and now in his young presidency. Counselors and ex-advisors say that when he thinks he’s right, there is very little chance of convincing him otherwise.
His dedication to various causes was evident throughout his career, according to former fellow Senate Republican Trent Lott, evident even in the length of his speeches.
“He was prone to making long speeches in the Senate, and I would joke, ‘We can go get the food, and that’s going to take some time,'” Lott said, ‘but they were good speeches and on the issues I believed in.’
This sometimes stern sense of clarity helped Biden overcome his childhood stutter and preserve his fragile third presidential campaign in 2019 to win a surprise nomination last year. In the White House, it was his personal dedication to a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure that drove the bill this month in a divided Senate.
This characteristic was demonstrated again on Friday, when Biden insisted – despite growing criticism from foreign allies – that the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan was improving America’s position abroad.
“The truth is, I haven’t seen that,” Biden said when asked about allies in Britain and Germany who openly questioned America’s credibility. “Actually it is the opposite. I have received just the opposite, because we act quickly, committed to what we said we would do.”
Biden first acknowledged the agonizing scenes of confusion as Americans, allies and Afghans tried to flee the Taliban, but he remained adamant that his decision was the right one, saying he knew there would be some chaos during the withdrawal.
“There is no way the withdrawal from Afghanistan could have happened without some of what you see now happening,” he said.
Despite Biden’s confidence, his administration’s initial public response has been vacillating.
The president was at Camp David during his summer vacation, but rushed to Washington on Monday, the day after the fall of Kabul. In his first public statements about the situation, he did not admit blame for the chaos.
Subsequent press sessions by the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department created as many questions as the answers, as officials were unable to determine how many Americans remained in Afghanistan and how they and their Afghan allies would be evacuated. Officials said that the image of Biden sitting alone in the crisis room at Camp David was widely criticized and later criticized inside the White House.
In a TV interview on Wednesday, Biden said emphatically “no” when asked if the crisis could have been handled better or if his administration made a mistake.
“The idea that there was some way to quit without making a mess, I don’t know how that was possible,” he told ABC.
The moment has created a political opportunity for his rivals, who would otherwise struggle to find something to criticize Biden with since his arrival in the White House.
Republicans have tried to use the withdrawal to describe Biden as a weak and ineffective president. Some Democrats have questioned the process and expressed fears that it could harm the party’s chances of retaining a majority in Congress next year. Representatives from both parties promised to start an investigation into the mistakes that led to the chaos.
The White House indicated that opinion polls consistently show that the majority of Americans support ending the military presence in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of Americans say they don’t think the war in Afghanistan was worth it, according to a poll published this week by the Associated Press – NORC Public Affairs Research Center.
The president’s aides believe that, especially if the evacuation at Kabul airport improves, the news will disappear from the headlines and Biden will eventually take credit for ending the war in the Asian country, something his predecessors failed to achieve.
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