The planned date for US withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced by President Biden on 14 April, 2021. In the aftermath of US withdrawal Kabul will almost inevitably be taken by the Taliban, in a kind of macabre echo of the fall of Saigon in 1975. The other possibility being that rival superpowers will take advantage of Biden’s apparent aversion to military engagement in order to further their international interests by force. It is difficult to overstate the seismic effects that either of these outcomes might have on the political and social wellbeing of men and (particularly) women, both in Afghanistan and beyond.
Though there are other observers that forecast more sanguine outcomes, it is impossible to fail to acknowledge the risks involved in American disengagement. This is, by near-universal consensus, an issue of the utmost gravity.
Near-universal; not all parties have handled the question with such caution. And alarmingly, the most notable of the rare failures to treat the issue of disengagement with due sobriety has come from the highest of offices. Aspects of President Biden’s recent announcement treated the question of American withdrawal with the kind of appalling levity of which he often accused his predecessor. The date selected for US disengagement – 11/09/21 or, in American format, 09/11/21 – constitutes an overt attempt on the part of President Biden to cast himself as the great closer of a long and bloody loop. In selecting the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Towers as his demobilization deadline, President Biden appears to be drawing attention to the length of the ‘forever war’ he purports to be bringing to a close, and in doing so seeking to cement his status as a great peacemaker.
To prioritise the accrual of favourable column inches over a strategically optimal withdrawal date treats the question of Afghanistan’s future with abject disdain. Given the scale of suffering which could ensue should the US disengagement precipitate a Taliban-led seizure of power, President Biden’s sole focus should be on avoiding this eventuality. Some issues are too grave to be used as PR stunts, or as exercises in legacy-building. It is hard not to be reminded of another famous date, chosen for symbolic rather than strategic reasons: 11/11/1918. The delaying of Armistice Day until the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month led to a great many needless deaths: a mass of actual human stories erased for the sake of neatness. We can only hope that President Biden isn’t forced to learn firsthand the lessons of this historic error of judgment.
It is difficult to imagine the Afghan government having had much of a say in the selection of this most American of dates. If the Afghans were not meaningfully consulted, this would represent an embarrassing point of affinity between President Biden and another ex-President who has been widely accused of sidelining President Ghani’s administration: Mr. Donald Trump.
Nor was the given withdrawal date the only performative aspect of the President’s speech. President Biden’s opening reference to his speaking from “the same spot” on which George W. Bush announced the US’ original military operations in Afghanistan constitutes a calculated effort to frame this announcement as completing a symbolic circularity. More generally, the President’s speech abounds with personal references – notably his son’s military service and his strongly-felt responsibility to the next US president – as well as allusions to American troops, American tragedy, and American justice. These references, whilst perfectly valid in and of themselves, should work only to complement what is surely the most important feature of any such announcement: substantive and sustained discussion of the situation on the ground, and the outlook for the Afghan people. So absent is this kind of meaningful Afghan-focused discourse, however, that Mr. Biden references George Bush by name more times than he does Ashraf Ghani.
President Biden’s speech – like his chosen disengagement date – is about optics rather than outcome; it looks inward rather than outward. This attitude, though hardly unfamiliar to foreign diplomats dealing with Washington since 2017, is no less abhorrent simply for being couched in more palatable language than that to which we have become accustomed in recent years.