Afghanistan: The fate of Biden's doctrine is uncertain

Afghans queue to board a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan at the military airport in Kabul after the Taliban's takeover. Photo by SHAKIB RAHMANI/AFP via Getty Images.
Afghans queue to board a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan at the military airport in Kabul after the Taliban's takeover. Photo by SHAKIB RAHMANI/AFP via Getty Images.

The urgent humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan is of the utmost priority, so getting distracted by a blame game risks a dire situation getting worse and further undermines the credibility of the US and European commitment to protecting democracy and human rights.

Since Kabul fell to the Taliban, the ground for political debate has been moving quickly – the ‘first order’ debate about whether the US should have stayed in Afghanistan already feels remote, and now the search is on to understand the US failure to predict the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan.

Claims are widespread that senior State Department officials were warned Kabul could collapse if US troops withdrew and that the CIA provided evidence of the Taliban’s growing strength – all providing fodder to partisan division.

Republican senators are taking aim at Democratic opponents which is further fuelling the conservative media’s assault on the Biden administration – an unfortunate political reality. But voters are also split along partisan lines with polling showing 69 per cent of Democrats but only 31 per cent of Republicans supporting the withdrawal.

A failure of policy or intelligence

The risk that the US – and the UK – become engulfed by a debate driven by partisan politics is certainly real, but understanding the context for the US exit from Afghanistan is essential, especially whether the failure to predict the speed of the Taliban’s takeover is a failure of policy, a failure of intelligence, or some combination of the two.

If the intelligence was clear, or clear enough, it is important to understand why, at a minimum, the decision to exit was not delayed to ensure the safe exit of as many people as possible. Understanding this has important consequences for future US policy, as well as to prevent additional miscalculations now. And the humanitarian implications are clearly grave.

Intelligence is rarely crystal clear, and intelligence failures are not uncommon, but the potential for cognitive bias to shape how policymakers evaluate intelligence is also significant, as is the propensity for leaders to underestimate the strength of adversaries – especially non-traditional ones.

Given the complexity attached to this kind of decision-making and the grave humanitarian consequences, it is especially important the US supports a full investigation. Governments can adopt different tactics to guard against the tendency towards bias, which is especially important when considering the context that many US foreign policy elites have long-standing and deeply held views about the use of military force.

How intelligence about the strength of the Taliban shaped the execution of the US decision to exit Afghanistan also matters for the UK, and for the US-UK relationship. British politicians have castigated the US for failing to consult its partners and undercutting the UK’s ability to stay the course in Afghanistan.

Certainly, Biden’s Afghan exit has eroded trust in the US and threatens to unsettle the transatlantic partnership, but there is a difference between the UK being a ‘handmaiden’ to chaos which could not have been anticipated or being subjected to a situation more clearly telegraphed to US leaders. Given their long history of cooperating to share intelligence, the US and UK leadership may have had similar understandings of the context they faced.

Foreign policy elites appear divided as to whether the status quo in Afghanistan was sustainable or whether additional troops would have been needed to maintain stability. President Biden is forceful in his claim that maintaining the status quo was not possible, and that the deal Donald Trump struck in February 2020 altered the basic conditions of US engagement. But the Afghanistan Study Group argues that a mere 2,000 extra troops to take the total to 4,500 would have been sufficient.

Creating a narrative for the US people

When Biden spoke to the nation the day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, he created a narrative which assigned blame to the Afghan army and its government for lacking the willpower to fight and defend itself. He questioned why the US should stay and defend a country that had repeatedly failed to defend itself.

Four US presidents have presided over this war, countless American lives have been lost, and still there was no hope of defending a country that its own people would not, all of which is powerful justification for the US decision to send its remaining troops back home.

But the president has set aside any discussion about the ability of the Afghan army to defend the country once US airpower and support had been reduced. His support of a careful and public assessment of the fuller context of the US exit from Afghanistan may help secure him continued support, especially from Democrats but also from US partners in Afghanistan.

Counterfactuals are notoriously hard to assess and it may never be truly known whether keeping US and NATO troops in Afghanistan for longer would have fundamentally altered the outcome.

But ultimately the US and also the UK will be judged on how this chaotic situation in Afghanistan turns out, and so understanding the role of decision-making and intelligence is critical.

This will be hard to achieve if the blame game continues, but it is essential not only for future US policy, but also critically for the future health of the US relationship with its European allies and international partners.

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, Director, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs.

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