- It’s been a year since Biden’s messy Afghanistan withdrawal.
- In the time since, Biden has been confronted with a slew of major challenges on the world stage.
- Insider spoke with foreign policy experts about the pullout, its impact, and how the US is confronting these challenges.
One year ago on August 15, 2021, the Taliban marched into Kabul, and the US-backed Afghan government collapsed. At the time, US forces in the country were in the last stages of withdrawing after two decades of war.
Weeks before, Biden had publicly expressed confidence in the ability of the US-trained Afghan military to fend off the Taliban. Instead, the world watched on live TV as the Taliban — an Islamist militant group the US drove from power following the 2001 invasion — retook control of the country.
As the Afghanistan the US and its partners had worked to build crumbled, scores of people flooded the Kabul airport, desperately seeking to flee the country. Some even tried to cling to US military planes as they took off, ultimately falling to their deaths.
The US was able to evacuate roughly 124,000 people by the end of the withdrawal on August 30.
But thousands of Afghan allies, people who’d helped the US during the war, were left behind. Hundreds of Americans were left behind, as well. In the midst of the pullout, an ISIS-K attack near the airport killed 13 US service members and 170 Afghans. And in one of its last acts in the war, the US carried out a drone strike that mistakenly targeted an aid worker and killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
The Saigon-esque pandemonium surrounding the withdrawal marked a humiliating final chapter for the US in Afghanistan — and for President Joe Biden in particular. At the time, US missteps in Afghanistan, a major foreign policy crisis for the administration, raised critical questions about US leadership and its ability to handle the pressing global challenges and threats.
In the year since the chaotic pullout, the world has become increasingly unstable. Europe is roughly six months into its first major war in decades. China is asserting its influence across the globe more and more, while flexing its military muscles at Taiwan. Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea continue to display aggressive behavior and nuclear ambitions.
Insider spoke to foreign policy experts and members of Congress about the withdrawal, what it meant for the US, and how Biden has handled the convoluted array of major challenges on the global stage in the time since.
Though Biden has faced strong criticism in Washington over the withdrawal, those Insider spoke with gave the president credit for finally pulling the US out of the longest war in its history. They also applauded his approach to the war in Ukraine so far. That said, Biden is still facing a complicated set of challenges domestically and internationally.
“We were there for 20 years. Other presidents before him promised to end the war, but then he did,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, an increasingly prominent voice on foreign policy on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Insider.
“They made certain mistakes,” Khanna said of the way the war in Afghanistan ended. “But overall, I think [Biden] will be judged well, and history will say he had the courage to stand up even to his own generals, who wanted us to be in an endless conflict. And by the way, his decision to end the Afghanistan war is something that even a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump would respect, because Trump talked about ending that war.”
“Will we learn lessons on how you evacuate and end a war? I hope we learned the lesson that we shouldn’t be in these wars for 20 years,” Khanna went on to say. “But the overriding moment in history is going to be that he made the right decision.”
Biden has repeatedly defended his decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, and sought to deflect criticism by contending it would’ve been problematic no matter what. While there’s truth to this, many in Washington have argued that certain steps should’ve been taken earlier to help things run more smoothly.
The president’s career has in many ways been defined by a focus on foreign policy. He was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while a senator, and he played a central role in shaping the Obama administration’s approach to global affairs as vice president. His level of experience in this arena led many to question how so many things went wrong with the Afghanistan withdrawal.
That said, Biden’s approach to an array of issues in the time since, particularly Ukraine, has stood in stark contrast to the Afghanistan withdrawal. But with midterms on the horizon, the president’s polling numbers remain low and what success he has had on the global stage has not translated into a bump in popularity.
Biden’s approval rating dropped below 50% for the first time amid the pullout. Khanna said the optics of the withdrawal “hurt him in the polling” but said this is why the decision to move forward with withdrawing US forces was “courageous.”
The California Democrat also said he believed the experience of the withdrawal shaped how Biden prepared for and responded to later crises, like the war in Ukraine that began less than a year after the last US soldier left Afghanistan.
Biden’s team was probably “very forward looking in how they dealt with the Ukraine crisis,” Khanna said, applauding the administration’s decision to publicize intelligence on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion plans and bring Russia’s actions out of the shadows.
‘Everybody knew it was over’
Critics of Biden have said that the Afghanistan pullout sent a dangerous message to the world about the state of the US. “America will be seen as weak in the eyes of our enemies and unreliable in the eyes of our allies,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has long been outspoken on foreign policy, said in a statement last August.
But Anthony Cordesman, emeritus chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, underscored that things were going poorly for the US in Afghanistan long before Biden.
“This had been going on for 20 years. From really the beginning of the Trump administration onwards, everybody knew it was over,” Cordesman told Insider, emphasizing that the US wasn’t “defeated by the collapse” of the Afghan government.
Indeed, many of Biden’s loudest Republican critics with regard to the Afghanistan withdrawal have glossed over the fact that it was set in motion by the Trump administration, which brokered a deal with the Taliban to pull out US troops.
At the time that agreement was made in February 2020, the Taliban already controlled roughly half of the country. There were also well-documented problems, including discipline issues and rampant corruption, that had been plaguing the Afghan military and limiting its effectiveness for years.
And while some have suggested that Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal played into the timing of Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale war in Ukraine, Cordesman argued otherwise.
“In Vietnam, people kept talking about what would happen — the domino effect — all the other regimes that would collapse because of the defeat. Well, nobody’s mentioned a single domino as a result of the collapse of Afghanistan,” Cordesman said.
“For anybody who has been studying international affairs, it becomes very, very difficult to understand exactly why Putin chose to go to this kind of war right at this time. And you search for reasons. And certainly this may have been a factor, but that’s a very American view of the calculations Putin made,” Cordesman added.
‘Democracy under siege’
As Russia wages a brutal war in Ukraine and China’s leadership pushes for more power both at home and abroad, Biden has warned that there’s a global fight between autocracy and democracy.
Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia expert on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, told Insider that Biden zeroing in on or “creating” this divide between democracies and autocracies is a “mistake.”
“So many countries have democracy under siege at the moment, including some of our European allies,” Hill said, pointing to the political disarray in the UK and the rise of the far right in France, among other places.
Dividing countries between being authoritarian or democratic wasn’t as “useful” as Biden intended it to be, she said, adding that it opened the door for critics to point out the contradictions.
With US democracy in rough shape following the tumultuous Trump era and 2020 election, Biden has done a “good job” on foreign policy under the circumstances, Hill said, but he’s struggled to explain to the US public why issues like the war in Ukraine matter to the country.
“This is really one of those massively transformative conflicts now. People freak out when you use the idea of World War III, but it’s that epoch-changing war,” Hill said.
Similarly, Cordesman said the world is in one of the most “challenging situations” it’s seen since “the days before World War I.
“The Cold War never presented quite the same spectrum of challenges,” Cordesman said, pointing to issues ranging from China’s growing influence to climate change.
In the face of these crises the Biden administration has “focused too much on rhetoric” and hasn’t yet created “strong plans” or “implemented its strategies,” Cordesman said.
But Cordesman said that when it comes to Ukraine, the administration has gotten “far more right than wrong.” Still, questions remain as to whether Biden — and the US more generally — is prepared for the daunting challenges ahead.
“One thing that we really need to start asking ourselves is if the world is this challenging, are we really ready to accept the uncertainties and the depths of this kind of strategic competition?” Cordesman said. “Are Americans really ready to face the world we’re actually living in?”