In Afghanistan, Joe Biden follows pattern of U.S. strategic failures

Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
U.S. President Joe Biden defends the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan at of the White House on Monday.  Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI
U.S. President Joe Biden defends the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan at of the White House on Monday.  Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 18 (UPI) -- The stunningly rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was years in the making.

It was made inevitable by the Trump administration's "deal" in February 2020 to withdraw all U.S. forces in 14 months and call for releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners and then President Joe Biden's commitment setting Sept. 11 as the new deadline.


How could this collapse have occurred so rapidly and why did we not know or anticipate these events will be answered by billions of electrons and tons of print.

There is, however, a more profound question. What has happened in Afghanistan is not a new page in American foreign policy. Indeed, it is a rerun of too many past American failures, beginning in Vietnam almost 60 years ago. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, those failures have not lessened.

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President Bill Clinton's policy to expand NATO to former members of the Warsaw Bloc failed to anticipate how the successor Russian Federation would react, assuming that Moscow would stand by passively allowing the most successful military alliance in history to encircle it. The 1999 78-day bombing campaign to save Kosovo from Serbian genocide not only took weeks too long to accomplish, it perpetuated hostility with Serbs that still persists.


George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003, two years after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, threw the Middle East and Persian Gulf into a seemingly permanent state of chaos, with Iran likely to emerge as the big winner. Barack Obama's decisions to "pivot" to Asia and intervene in Libya in 2011 that ended the Moammar Gadhafi years and provoked a still-unsettled civil war continued this pattern of failure.

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Indeed, the Obama administration invoked the "4+1" strategy in which China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and global terror were designated as the key adversaries. The Trump administration narrowed the focus "to contain, deter and, if war occurred, defeat" China or Russia -- not the most subtle of strategies given the other sides get powerful votes.

Now President Joe Biden, arguably the most experienced person ever to hold that office with 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, is presiding over yet another failure of huge proportions. And the administration failed in part by not answering the critical "what next?" question that plagued a host of presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy over Vietnam.

The Trump administration alienated friends and allies with "America first" policies and statements calling NATO obsolete. Of Trump's grossest failures, abrogating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran that, if followed by all parties, would have permanently prevented Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, was the most dangerous and destabilizing. Provoking tariff wars with China was another.

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It is understandable (yet unacceptable) that the four presidents following George H.W. Bush, who were foreign policy novices and very inexperienced in governing, could commit these blunders. However, that does not explain why Biden ordered the Afghanistan withdrawal that so precipitously caused the collapse. While the Pentagon is not above criticism, the one area it excels is in contingency planning.

It is inconceivable the Pentagon did not consider worst-case scenarios. So far, the president's ordering of a brigade to the Karzai International Airport in Kabul to support the evacuation of non-combatant American and other citizens has proceeded hastily and efficiently, underscoring the Pentagon's preparations. But make no mistake: This evacuation is fraught with potential danger.

Setting a date certain for completing the withdrawal, failing to think through the implications of removing contractors, without which the Afghan security forces cannot function, and seemingly ignoring the fate of tens of thousands of Afghans who supported the coalition were unmistakable signs of strategic incompetence.

Why the Biden team has allowed this catastrophe to unfold probably reflected the following considerations. First, it was time to end the endless wars. If the Afghans cannot defend their country, the United States will not, given all the blood and treasure it expended over 20 years.


Second, the administration drew the callous and cynical conclusion that most Americans will move on and that this withdrawal will have no impact on the 2022 and '24 elections. Hence, this crisis will pass politically.

Third, and most sadly, Biden is following the same pattern of strategic failure of so many past presidents. The only conclusion one can draw to answer the question of why the United States has failed so often strategically is that, regardless of presidential experience and intention, strategic failure is embedded in America's DNA. And there may be no cure.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, prime author of "shock and awe" and the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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