“You all did a hell of a job,” Biden told his top national security aides, according to a White House official. He feels the same about his own performance.
They have eroded his political strength and blocked momentum for his home economic agenda. Biden responded warmly.
He heard and dismissed all major indictments. In public and in private, he and his collaborators reject the accusation of neglecting fundamentally better alternatives to end America’s longest war.
They admit that they did not anticipate the meteoric collapse of the Afghan government and security forces as the Taliban advanced amid US troop withdrawals. But even if they had anticipated it, they say the potential options – to start massive evacuations sooner or hand the country directly to the Taliban – would have produced the same chaotic rush for the exits.
Biden broke a vow in mid-August to keep troops at the Kabul airport until the 6,000 Americans left in Afghanistan were released. But that was before the suicide bombing that killed 13 American soldiers and dozens more.
As the August 31 deadline approached, the military had evacuated all citizens except 100 to 200, many of whom were still reluctant to leave. The president chose what another White House aide called “the best chance to save the most lives” by removing troops on time and relying on diplomatic pressure to help the remaining Americans out .
Biden’s belief that the war in the oft-described “graveyard of empires” no longer served American interests hardened during years of quagmire. As vice president in 2009, he saw Barack Obama struggle with his own skepticism as military leaders urged him to send more troops in a display of American resolve.
“What does this mean exactly? “I asked, sometimes too brutally,” recalled the former president in his recently published memoirs. “That we keep doubling down on the bad decisions we’ve already made?” Does anyone think that running our wheels in Afghanistan for another 10 years will impress our allies and sow fear in our enemies?
“Don’t let them corner you,” he told Biden.
The then vice president lost that internal argument. In the Oval Office itself 12 years later, he decided not to get stuck.
“It’s political leadership”
The fact that most Americans told pollsters they preferred to leave did not make it easier for Biden under his watch. Public attention had long since shifted elsewhere. Wars end in tattered conclusions.
“Much more difficult than kicking the box,” observed Michael Beschloss, one of the many historians the president invited to discuss six months ago. “Biden knows enough about the story to know he’ll be open to criticism for whatever happens. It took guts.”
“It’s political leadership, from my point of view,” Beschloss concluded. The dangers have not passed either; The Taliban’s retaliation against the Americans and remaining Afghan allies, or other egregious human rights violations, would compound the damage he has already suffered.
For better or worse, Biden’s belief that he took risks for the national interest brought out some distinguishing qualities. His temper can quickly ignite. The University of Delaware graduate has long stood up to those – from Republican opponents to Obama’s White House assistants to Obama himself – who made fun of him as a light intellectual or a badass prone to verbal trips.
“In an environment of Rhodes scholars and former professors, he’s thin on condescension, real and imagined,” Biden biographer Evan Osnos wrote last year. One of the antagonists of the Afghanistan debate in 2009, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, later called it “bad on almost every major issue of foreign and national security policy in the past four years. decades “.
Convinced that he is right now, Biden shouted his rebuttal in his address to the nation after the troop withdrawal ended. If even some allies found him angry and defensive counterproductive, he didn’t mind.
When Biden left the State Dining Room following his remarks, a member of his team told him that television commentators called him “provocative.” It made the president smile.
“He just laughed and said, ‘I just said what I think and what I believe,'” the White House aide recalled. “He defies the requirement that he admit he was wrong. He doesn’t believe he was wrong.”