Republicans Buck Biden on Afghanistan at Their Political Peril

Loudly opposing a popular but difficult maneuver would be a curious choice for a midterm message.

WASHINGTON— What is to be done?

After 20 summers in Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence in the country is all but gone, and so is the well-enough-meaning puppet government successive American presidents have propped up. Among national security officials, the killing stroke of the Taliban’s recapture of the country was expected to take maybe six months. It took a long weekend.

This is something that major players in both parties agreed upon. President Donald Trump, after backing a surge early in his term, ran for reelection against endless wars and promised to finish the job in Afghanistan by 2021. In April, President Joe Biden surprised as he more or less continued Trump’s work, and announced U.S. departure by September 11, 2021, later updating that to an early goal of August. With the important, sympathetic exception of a nerve-wracking scene of fleeing U.S. personnel and frightened Afghans at Hamid Karzai airport (KBL) early Monday morning, it is done. 

Biden’s team, led by career centrist Democrats such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, is working around the clock to spare their boss what could be a mortal political blow: the horror of executions of Americans at KBL. Blinken told Meet the Press on Sunday that the U.S. has moved its embassy and will maintain a diplomatic presence at the airport. 

Reiterating the core principle of his boss’s decision, Blinken told Chuck Todd, “The Taliban have a certain self-interest in this. They know what happened the last time they harbored a terrorist group that attacked the United States.”

“This outcome was always likely to occur whenever U.S. forces left, whether 10 years ago or 10 years from now,” argues Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities. “The Biden administration deserves credit for having the guts to stop propping up a house of cards. The sad irony is peace in Afghanistan is now closer thanks to the U.S. exit and defeat of the failed government we wasted so many lives and dollars defending.” 

Back home, politics will ensue.

Before this week, the 2021 Chicago Council Survey found that seventy percent of Americans supported ending the war. That figure included majorities of Democrats (77 percent), independents (73 percent), and Republicans (56 percent). The thrust of the coverage over Western television and on the internet has been critical of the administration, but the fact that the Kabul-led state collapsed so swiftly cuts both ways. That is, there are the accusations that the U.S. exit has been shambolic, but perhaps greater is the general disquiet about what, exactly, the U.S. has been doing in the country since achieving the death of Osama Bin Laden, a decade ago. 

Above all, Republicans appear desperate to land a glove on Biden, who has proved far more wily and popular than the man the GOP and senior ranks of his own party once wrote off.

There appear to be four main political groups on the Afghanistan decision. First, there are the Democrats, who appear in lockstep with their president. It’s not just loyalty—many on the back benches are sanguine about the political ramifications.

“What I am feeling and thinking about the situation in Afghanistan, I can never fit on Twitter,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego of New Mexico, an Iraq veteran. “But one thing that is definitely sticking out is that I haven’t gotten one constituent call about it and my district has a large Veteran population.”

Second, there are those Republicans who would all but seek a neoconservative revival. Part of this contingent is comfortable with castigating Trump. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska called the scene in Afghanistan “the predictable outcome of the Trump-Biden doctrine of weakness.” Sen. Mitch McConnell, the powerful minority leader, has stopped short of targeting Trump.

Third, there is what appears to be emerging as the mainline Republican position. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who negotiated personally with the Taliban in Doha—says getting out was the right call, but just not the way Biden did it. In an escalation of rhetoric Sunday, Pompeo told Fox News that the Biden team should have been prepared to smash the advancing Taliban by force from the air, to “impose consequences” on the road to an undefined, steadier transition in government.

A former senior Trump official told me he had advised Trump to pull out during the presidential transition in December—as it was not the warm-weather “fighting season” that has proven so lucrative for Taliban fighters. In a statement, Trump, who did not execute on that advice, said of Biden: “Everyone knew he couldn’t handle the pressure.” The former president continued: “Even Obama’s former secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said so.” Never mind that Gates all but joined in with the onslaught of criticisms by the brass in the summer of 2020, telling Judy Woodruff: “It’s quite clear that being a unifying president is pretty low on the priority of our current incumbent. I think he is a divider, and I think he does so quite consciously.” 

But a curious fourth group has emerged: a fair number of Republicans running for president. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tom Cotton joined Pompeo and assailed Biden over the weekend, though they haven’t called for airstrikes. But Sen. Josh Hawley, Sen. Ted Cruz, among others, have stayed quiet for now. They’re gambling that if Biden avoids the worst, he ends America’s longest war. And that’s not exactly the finest point of attack for anyone trying to prevent a third consecutive two-term Democratic president.

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