Updated at 10:30 a.m. PT on August 17, 2021.
As Kabul fell and the Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan over the past two days, the 45th and 46th presidents of the United States bickered over who was to blame. President Joe Biden, in a statement, put the onus on a deal made by former President Donald Trump; Trump fired back “Never would have happened if I were President!” even as Biden followed the path Trump had laid out.
That feud was a sideshow. The speech that Biden delivered Monday, stoutly defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan now, did not use the same words or tone that Trump would have—but in substance, it was an elegant articulation of the same foreign policy his predecessor pursued. Biden insisted that what mattered was America’s national interest, and he argued that it had been fulfilled long ago.
“I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?” Biden said. “How many more American lives is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?”
This focus on narrow national interest is what Trump called “America First.” Biden would never use that term, not least because of its dark history as a World War II–era anti-Semitic rallying cry. And in contrast to Biden’s paean to fallen service members, Trump disparaged the war dead as “suckers” and “losers.” But their shared lodestar is the idea that it’s time for the U.S. to focus on its own interests—and to leave other countries to fend for themselves, come what may.
In particular, Biden blamed Afghans for the collapse of the government. He scolded the country’s leaders for fleeing the country and for refusing his advice about preparing for a post-American future. He accused the Afghan army of going down without a fight. The fact that the Taliban had so quickly overrun the government, despite two decades and astronomical American spending on training and equipment, he said, showed that staying in Afghanistan any longer would have been fruitless. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said. “It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.” Additionally, although Biden often touts his work with Barack Obama, today he noted that he opposed the 2009 surge into Afghanistan that Obama ordered.
The implicit dismissal of the American role in creating the conflict is glib and cynical. Afghanistan is engulfed in a civil war—or was until this weekend, when the Taliban effectively won—but the U.S. was no disinterested third party. The war escalated with the American invasion in 2001, and Afghans have paid dearly for it, only to end up with the same group in control 20 years later.
Biden went through the familiar pieties about the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, and promised to lend U.S. support for human rights there, but his promises are vague and hollow. Having left the country to the Taliban, the U.S. will have little sway. Biden also vowed to rescue vulnerable Afghans who aided American forces, including with a temporary deployment of U.S. forces. My colleague George Packer has eloquently sounded the call to save these Afghans. Biden’s explanation for why that was not done sooner—some wanted to stay, he said, while the Afghan government discouraged an exodus—rang false. The president’s promise to make good was more concrete, though whether he can actually achieve it remains to be seen.
The American departure may be a moral catastrophe, then, but it is not a strategic failure. The occupation failed years ago. As I wrote in 2019, America’s leaders—Democrat and Republican; civilian and military; elected, appointed, and career civil servant—all knew for years that the U.S. was losing in Afghanistan, and they continued to say we were winning. While the endgame of the American exit was clearly botched, no critic of Biden’s or Trump’s withdrawal decision has offered a coherent alternative plan beyond indefinite American occupation. In his remarks today, Biden tried to frame the U.S. war as a success—Osama bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda no longer relies on Afghanistan as a base—followed by a pointless hangover.
“We did that,” he said. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
(President George W. Bush’s remarks when the U.S. attack on Afghanistan began in 2001 do indeed focus on disrupting al-Qaeda and holding those responsible for the September 11 attacks to account—though Bush also said that “the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies,” a bitterly ironic line today, after trillions of American spending for so little lasting result.)
Despite the turmoil and suffering sure to come, it is hard to imagine a large, lasting public backlash, for the same reason that the war in Afghanistan withered in the first place: Most Americans just weren’t all that interested.
This is what both Trump and Biden—two politicians with a canny grasp of public opinion—understood. Every president since Bush knew that when the U.S. finally left Afghanistan, chaos would follow. Only Trump and Biden were ready and willing to take the plunge, calculating that however ugly a scene they left in Afghanistan, popular sentiment had turned against the war. The next few weeks and months will show whether Trump and Biden were right, and whether Americans are really committed to “America First” or whether the pull of hegemony was merely dormant.
This story originally stated that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the 44th and 45th presidents, respectively. In fact, they are the 45th and 46th presidents.