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Pundits Ponder Biden's 'Saigon Moment,' 'Epic Failure' In Afghanistan

Desperate Afghans attempt to board a plane at Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul on August 16 after the Taliban had seized the city.

The Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan has led many to criticize U.S. President Joe Biden's administration for allowing the internationally backed government in Kabul to collapse.

While the rapidly evolving situation in Kabul has raised questions about what kind of government will follow President Ashraf Ghani's hasty flight from the country on August 15, attention is also being focused on what perceptions about Washington's handling of the U.S. withdrawal will mean for Biden's administration.

Some critics say Biden's reputation has been severely damaged when it comes to other countries looking to the United States for leadership.

Scott Lucas, a U.S. foreign affairs expert and an associate at the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin, says the speed of the Taliban advance may have surprised some. But he said he does not think Biden's administration miscalculated what would happen after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"I think Joe Biden's advisers knew that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan," Lucas told RFE/RL on August 16. "I think they thought that putting American resources in Afghanistan was counterproductive when priorities lie elsewhere."

Noting that Biden has argued since 2009 that continuing to put resources into Afghanistan would be wasting them, Lucas says he thinks U.S. foreign policy goals now "lay elsewhere in the region."

"They include how the United States is dealing with Iran and dealing with Pakistan. And they certainly lay elsewhere in terms of what is now a priority, I think, for the Biden folks: [China]."

"Whether you call it confrontation or competition with China, it just did not fit that idea of America in terms of a global way forward -- especially with that China specter -- to continue to put resources into Afghanistan."

But Lucas said that "paradoxically" both the United States and Europe are now arguably on the sidelines of regional questions that play into a "widely changing relationship between Asia and other parts of the world" when it comes to Afghanistan.

New questions arise when considering "all the maneuvers around Afghanistan between the Taliban and other countries," he says.

"I think you start with Pakistan, which had supported the Taliban in its first period in power," he says. "Does Islamabad renew links with the Taliban?"

"With Iran, significant in the west of Afghanistan, of course, they had had bad relations with the Taliban in the 1990s, to say the least," Lucas says. "But they had moved towards opening channels of communication in recent years. What do they do now?"

'Wider Implications'

Going beyond them and looking at the wider region, Lucas considers the Persian Gulf countries that were amongst the few countries to recognize the Taliban 20 years ago.

"And you look at China, which only this morning has moved quickly…to say that they…want to work with them," Lucas says. "Does this mean that Afghanistan and the Taliban become part of that wider Chinese economic and political project -- the Belt and Road Initiative?"

"You'll note that I'm talking about wider implications without bringing in the United States so far," Lucas says, adding that for the first time since late 2001, the United States is no longer a central player in Afghanistan.

Taliban Afghan Takeover A Calculated U.S. Foreign Policy Failure, Says Political Analyst
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In the United States, criticism from many politicians, mainly Republicans, of the Biden administration's handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been scathing.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out at Biden on August 15 saying he should resign "in disgrace."

Biden has defended his decision on the withdrawal, arguing that it was up to the Afghan forces to fight back against the Taliban and stressing that the withdrawal was the continuation of an agreement Trump's administration had reached with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020.

"One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country," Biden said on August 14 as the Taliban closed in on Kabul. "An endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me."

But Steve Scalise, the Republican whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, has described the collapse of the Afghan government as Biden's "Saigon moment" -- a reference to the panicked 1975 helicopter evacuation from the U.S. Embassy in what is now Ho Chi Minh City following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

"President Trump had an agreement in place that was 'conditions' based – and those conditions were not met," Scalise told the CBS television program Face The Nation on August 15. "In fact, many of the conditions included [were] that the Taliban wouldn't overtake the cities that they've now overtaken under President Biden's leadership."

"President Biden didn't follow through on the conditions that were in place," Scalise said. "He just let them come and run roughshod."

'Enemies Are Watching'

Scalise says Biden's handling of the U.S. withdrawal has sent "a more concerning message" to U.S. allies as well as its "enemies around the world who are watching this."

"China is very involved in what is happening right now in Afghanistan as are our other adversaries," Scalise said. "And so they're seeing just how easy it was to overtake these areas where the president really said it wouldn't happen. And it did happen. So, it's an epic failure on President Biden's foreign policy."

General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told senators in an August 15 briefing that the U.S. intelligence community is now recalculating earlier assessments about future terrorist threats coming out of Afghanistan.

Those reports say it is now thought that terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda may be able to reconstitute themselves and grow much faster in Afghanistan than previously expected.

Representative Michael Waltz, a Republican from Florida who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves, predicts that Al-Qaeda will come "roaring back" as a result of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan.

"You're going to see Al-Qaeda 3.0," Waltz told Fox News on August 15. "They are going to come roaring back. You're going to see a repeat of when [President Barack] Obama pulled out of Iraq far too soon, quickly, and irresponsibly -- and [Islamic State extremists] came surging in."

"If I were in Taiwan or Ukraine right now watching all this unfold, I would be terrified knowing this is how the United States will react under this administration," Waltz added on Twitter.

U.S. President Joe Biden leaves a wreath in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to honor fallen veterans of the Afghan conflict earlier this year.
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves a wreath in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to honor fallen veterans of the Afghan conflict earlier this year.

Not all of the criticism of the Biden administration is the result of partisan politics.

Former U.S. national-security adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster and Bradley Bowman, director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have been warning for months about "dire consequences" surrounding the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal on August 15, McMaster and Bowman described the return of the Taliban to Kabul as "a vivid and painful display of what happens when leaders in Washington delude themselves regarding persistent threats, the nature of America's enemies, and the ability to end wars by simply going home."

No 'Single Fall Guy'

Alistair Bunkall, a defense and security correspondent for Britain's Sky TV, concludes that the "finger of blame" can be pointed in many directions.

"The truth, I'm afraid, is always far more nuanced in these situations, as much as our natural instinct wants a single fall guy," Bunkall wrote in an analysis on August 15 as the Taliban moved into the presidential palace in Kabul.

Bunkall says blame should be directed at the Trump administration "for negotiating a bad deal with the Taliban" in 2020 as well as at Biden "for the secretive and sudden way in which he pulled U.S. troops out."

Then U.S. President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands during a meeting in 2019 with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has now left the country in the face of the Taliban's rapid advance.
Then U.S. President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands during a meeting in 2019 with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has now left the country in the face of the Taliban's rapid advance.

He said Ghani should be blamed "for isolating much of his country and alienating provinces and local leaders," along with Afghanistan's security forces who "after years of training and mentoring, and equipped with trillions of dollars of high-tech equipment, seemingly gave up with little fight."

Bunkall also criticized British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and "other NATO leaders for failing to agree on a framework to keep forces in the country even without American support."

Senior politicians and military officials in Britain are also criticizing the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC on August 16 that the crisis was a "failure of the international community," saying Western intervention in Afghanistan was a job that was only half-done.

"If it's a failure, it's a failure of the international community to not realize that you don't fix things overnight" in Afghanistan, Wallace said. 'I'm afraid when you deal with a country like Afghanistan that is 1,000 years of history, effectively, and civil war -- you manage its problems and you might have to manage it for 100 years."