A Bungled Mess

Right now, we need a coherent policy in Afghanistan.

Joe Biden speaking at a press conference
Oliver Contreras / Sipa / AP

Updated at 4:03 p.m. ET on August 27, 2021.

For days, those defending President Joe Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan repeated the mantra that no U.S. citizens had been killed during the successful evacuation of tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans from the country. This reckless prediction ricocheted across social media and was bound to be invalidated—indeed, it was almost tempting fate to keep saying it—and now at least 13 American service members are dead, along with dozens of Afghans, after a suicide bomber struck at crowds outside the airport in Kabul earlier today.

Assessing whom to blame should begin the minute this operation is over and the last evacuees are out of Kabul. The American people will want answers, and that’s why congressional oversight exists. Biden’s supporters should lead this effort because it is the responsibility of the governing party, and because this retreat and evacuation are, for want of a better phrase, a bungled mess.

Calling this pullout a bungled mess is not the same thing as saying that Biden’s policy is wrong. His decision to leave Afghanistan is the right one and (as I have pointed out) what the American people want. But the execution of this operation has been plagued by organizational and bureaucratic screwups that are either laughable or horrifying: the State Department advertised job openings in Kabul just before the evacuation, and the U.S. military handed safe-passage lists of Afghan allies to the Taliban, to name just two examples. The execution of a policy that Biden supported for years looks like a complete improvisation by a national-security bureaucracy that wanted to pretend it had no idea Biden would make this decision.

This operation was never going to go smoothly, but we will need to know, in the aftermath of the biggest single day of U.S. casualties in 10 years, whether it had to be this bad. The more immediate question, however, is what to do next. Blame-storming might be satisfying, but it’s not a policy.

What is the policy? The president’s press conference today was clear on the most important point: Biden stood by his vow to end the war, and to do it as quickly as possible. That’s important, but no one really doubted that he would stick to his long-term objective.

The rest of his policy is far less clear. Biden’s prepared remarks detoured through his son’s death and a quote from the Old Testament, which might have been appropriate for a stump speech but seemed out of place in a press briefing during a crisis. (And make no mistake: This is a crisis, both political and military.) Worse, the president’s noted temper flared for a moment when he fenced with a Fox News reporter over his predecessor’s responsibility for the timetable of the pullout. Biden was right: From the start, he has been hamstrung by reckless agreements that Donald Trump made with the Taliban. But arguing with bad-faith interlocutors is never a good idea, especially in a time of crisis.

When pressed on whether the United States was prepared for the chaos in Kabul, Biden’s answers boiled down to affirming that he was giving the military full latitude to decide how to handle the situation. He said, for example, that we had not kept control of Bagram Air Base because the military thought it unnecessary. (That locates the source of the decision, but it doesn’t explain very much; if we knew we were going to be evacuating tens of thousands of people, why did the military hand over Bagram?)

Still, Biden did what typical presidents do: He owned the decision and its consequences. He vowed as well to retaliate for the attack at the airport, and to hunt down the killers from the Afghan branch of the Islamic State. The American people would expect no less. Wisely, the president stressed that we would go after the bombers on our schedule, at a time and place of our choosing, rather than lash out; while this makes prudent strategic sense, it is difficult for a nation grieving its lost soldiers to hear.

He then added the caveat, however, that he would not support a major military operation. Inevitably, this will lead to parsing of what constitutes such an operation. He also said he intends to get everyone out, but he accepts—as he must in the real world—that not everyone might get out. What all of this means, in practice, is that we can declare that the war is over, but as every strategist knows, the enemy gets a vote. We can stop fighting, but we must, as a people and as a government, determine what price we are willing to accept for the end of hostilities.

It’s not evident that the American people or their president have made that judgment yet.

As of now, the president’s policy seems to be the same one we began with just days ago. The American public wants to come home from the war in Afghanistan, and that remains Biden’s goal. Beyond that, however, the path through the next weeks—or even the next few days—is no clearer than it was before the attack at the Kabul airport. We seem to be stuck with the great American tradition of muddling through, and that might be all we can do at this point.

This story has been updated to reflect that a single suicide bomber carried out the attack in Kabul, according to the Pentagon. Military officials had previously stated that two suicide bombers were involved.