George W. Bush
Matthew Schmidt, Tribune News Service
If you want to ascribe blame for the “failure” in Afghanistan, you’ll find it in the decision to invade Iraq. President Joe Biden did not fail there, he did his best to work through an impossible situation made worse by former President George W. Bush’s terrible choice to shift the war to a country that played no part in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As has been shown over and over, most recently in Robert Draper’s “To Start a War,” it was Bush himself who decided Saddam Hussein was a “bad guy” who needed to go. One by one, senior officials fell in line with the president’s gut instinct and set about obstructing and poisoning the intelligence and planning processes designed to help the White House make strategic decisions based on fact.
Many of those officials had serious doubts about the wisdom of Bush’s call. Most notably was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who cinched the decision with his deft, but nearly totally incorrect, presentation in defense of war to the UN Security Council. Once the famous general-turned-diplomat said it was OK, there was no turning back. Our allies piled on the bandwagon, and we were off to topple Baghdad and make way for a democratic Iraq.
In 2003, when Bush declared major combat operations over in Afghanistan, there were just 8,000 US service personnel in-country for the entire theater of operations. Biden just sent 5,000 troops to cover just the embassy withdrawal. Bush’s pivot to Iraq was an abandonment of Afghanistan. It was a move from which our efforts there never recovered.
The images of bodies falling off planes as they leave the country are emblematic of the horrors that await local citizens when the Taliban consolidate their rule. Enough time has passed for girls to have been born after the fall of the Taliban to US troops who never knew the fear of forced hoodings with a burka or the devastating exclusion from school. The Taliban-suffused world looming over Afghanistan will be a special kind of hell for these 18-year-olds.
The story bouncing around of the State Department’s failure to anticipate the quickness of the Taliban’s takeover misses the reality. A better way to understand what happened is that the processes of America’s intelligence agencies were working right, compared to the way they were when the Bush administration yoked them to its geopolitical fantasies. Real disagreement about events was aired. As it should be. And even as Biden acknowledges that the speed of the Taliban’s operations caught people flatfooted, the truth is that that’s more a courtesy apology to his critics than anything else. The bottom line is that the intel community was more right than it was wrong.
The Department of Defence had been urging the State Department to beware that Kabul might fall fast, but just how fast is a fool’s game to play. Some said days, some said weeks. Everyone understood that once word got out of the evacuation something like this might happen. It was planned for. What you see on TV isn’t a chaotic withdrawal, but a well-executed withdrawal in the midst of chaos that was war-gamed out months ago. American professionalism is bringing enough order to the chaos to complete the mission, but it can’t eliminate it all.
The United States faced a situation with no good bets to be placed. As Biden repeated, “there was never a good time” for a withdrawal to take place. Once any sort of evacuation started, we risked precipitating a rapid collapse if it was seen that Washington had lost faith in the ability of the Afghan government. So Foggy Bottom took a risk and held off on closing shop until the last minute. It was a brave call. But the diplomats, like the servicemen and women, were willing to put their lives in danger for the sake of a mission they believed in. The images we’re watching reflect the resolve and heroism of individual Americans’ commitment to their mission, not a mistake by Joe Biden.
The choice was an impossible one. All that could be done was to stand with the people of Afghanistan as long as possible.
That was a choice Bush didn’t make.
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