Afghan debacle shattered foreign-policy establishment’s ‘expertise’ mystique


When President Biden ­addressed the nation on Monday, he was admirably clear-eyed about the reason for leaving Afghanistan: US forces had killed Osama bin Laden long ago. America should have sought no more than to find and kill him and neutralize al Qaeda — not to will liberal democracy into existence in a country that has rarely enjoyed a stable central government at any point in the last 2,000 years.

As a rhetorical intervention, it was very successful. (One friend suggested to me that Biden might have given the exact same speech when he finally cut off his son Hunter’s American Express card.) But it was also painfully self-exculpatory.

Unlike his predecessor, Biden isn’t a political outsider. He supported our presence in ­Afghanistan during his time in the Senate and was responsible for the conduct of the war as vice president for eight years. Indeed, the Obama campaign relentlessly touted Biden’s supposed foreign-policy expertise in 2008. If Biden thought the whole enterprise was doomed from the start, why didn’t he say so publicly at any point in the previous 20 years?

Leaving Afghanistan was ­always going to be a mess. Anyone who has been paying attention knew the Afghan military was nonfunctional. The corrupt hacks in the Kabul government were always going to flee to the comfort of university speaking circuits and cushy NGO gigs at the first sign of trouble.

Taliban fighters standing guard at a road in Kabul on August 16, 2021.
Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

But did it have to look like this? Even late last week, administration officials were confident that the Taliban weren’t going to wind up in control of the capital, certainly not within a matter of days. Biden was on vacation. The most pressing question for the administration was foisting a nonscientific mask policy on the vaccinated adult population.

In a news conference following Biden’s speech, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby dismissed concerns from reporters — who for once are as incredulous as the average American — as “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”

This is condescending gibberish. It is also an absurd analogy. A Monday-morning quarterback is a schlub in a Cheeto-stained jersey who thinks he knows better than his favorite team’s coaches. To be a Monday-morning QB, you have to be objecting to a game plan.

said that reproters were “Monday-morning quarterbacking” with questions about the situation.
Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby said that reporters were “Monday-morning quarterbacking” with questions about the situation.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Forgive me for not seeing any evidence of a plan here. Was it part of anybody’s master plan to leave the Taliban billions of dollars in weapons, helicopters and bases as a host gift? Was it a masterpiece of strategy to publish an apparently old photo of Biden speaking to CIA agents to give the impression that the president was firmly in control? Whose idea was it to withdraw air support before we had gotten both our own civilian personnel and thousands of our Afghan allies out of the country?

Also: Did the administration’s direct line to Twitter not address the question of whether the Taliban should be able to spread propaganda via a platform from which Biden’s predecessor (and, briefly, this newspaper) have been banned?

Afghanistan has long been the graveyard of empires. It should now be the final resting place for one of our hoariest myths: the so-called “adults in the room,” ­alluded to over and over during the 2020 presidential election and throughout Donald Trump’s presidency. This is the absurd idea that the US elite — in the Pentagon, the intel services, the professions, the universities, the media, Big Business — are not only more virtuous and self-effacing than the people they lord over, they are also more competent.

People attempting to enter Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to try to flee Afghanistan on August 16, 2021.
People attempting to enter Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to try to flee Afghanistan on August 16, 2021.
Str/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)
People clinging to an Air Force plane as it takes off from Kabul on August 16, 2021.
People clinging to an Air Force plane as it takes off from Kabul on August 16, 2021.
Verified UGC via AP

The chaotic images of the last few days have put paid to this nonsense. The withdrawal wasn’t a sober exercise. It was a bunch of glorified Teen Vogue editorial ­interns realizing in the horror of an instant that woke tweets from the US embassy weren’t going to persuade a machine-gun-wielding militia to respect Western ideas about human rights. Confronted with their failures, they either ­deflect or, like the normally voluble White House press secretary Jen Psaki, announce that they are “out of the office.”

This shouldn’t be surprising. These are the same feckless elites who shrugged their shoulders as NAFTA destroyed American industry, as hundreds of thousands of Americans overdosed on drugs, as we lost ground to China and became a nation of obese screen addicts.

Over and over again our leaders refuse to accept blame. If Biden’s speech is any indication, they are not ready to do so this time, either.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine.

Twitter: @MatthewWalther

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