"The Buck Stops Here", those words were popularised by President Harry Truman who kept a sign on his desk with this very saying inscribed. Truman believed that by stating it publicly, he would signal that the President has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions.
And on Friday, 20 August, President Joe Biden had to do just that, take responsibility for the quagmire that America finds itself in with regards to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
This is President Biden’s third major address on Afghanistan since the chaos unfolded. Biden spoke about being united with their partners on Afghanistan and had reached out to key allies in UK's Boris Johnson, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Emmanuel Macron, and other G7 member nations.
Biden emphasised being “united” in the process of understanding the situation in Afghanistan, but united in name only as Washington acted alone.
Biden Administration's Push for Increased Global Engagements
Shortly after the 2020 elections, I wrote about how a Biden administration would push for more global engagements and a return to multilateralism, especially with priorities to re-enter the Paris Climate Accords and resume talks on the JCPOA with Iran.
On taking office, the President’s first few calls were to the same European leaders, as a new Biden administration signaled to the world that America will no longer be insular as evinced in the previous four years of the Trump administration, as he hinted that his current priorities lay in repairing relations with neighbours and European allies that Trump had jettisoned, particularly given the vitriol towards NATO.
For close to two decades, NATO troops and the United States conducted joint military operations in Afghanistan. Yet, plenty of NATO nations are now befuddled with the administration’s rapid haste to pull out, leaving a lot of military efforts redundant.
Biden said the buck stopped with him as he stood his ground and the decision to withdraw. His ire directed towards the Afghan military for surrendering to the Taliban after being trained by US forces and he even referenced his predecessor who made the deal to withdraw by 1 May, suggesting it was fait-accompli.
The Biden administration’s decision to pull out from Afghanistan epitomised a sense of trepidation about global entanglements with no end in sight. In a previous op-ed for The Quint, I outlined how since the Bretton Woods system, Washington has played a key role in shaping multilateralism with American foreign policy’s shibboleth being involved in rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan or defending political ideologies in its quest to defeat communism in Vietnam, Korea and the creation of a military alliance as a bulwark against the communist empire.
The Trump-Biden Consensus on Afghanistan
But the Biden doctrine on Afghanistan seems to be uncannily similar to one of Donald Trump’s, a sense of epitomising domestic rebuilding and eschewing foreign entanglements that could be expensive to the exchequer. There is no doubt, that Biden came into office, battling the biggest health crisis that America has witnessed in over a century and the goal was to vaccinate and resuscitate a struggling economy.
Biden believes that the lives of American troops are too sacrosanct for battles that no longer concern American interests, this as ordinary Afghans were literally falling from the skies in a dash to escape the Taliban.
Furthermore, Biden was vehement when he said that nation-building in Afghanistan was not a priority, something that goes against US foreign policy given that the most successful American endeavour in this field was the post-war construction of Europe through the Marshall Plan, which both aided Washington militarily in NATO member nations and was a robust economic partner, bolstering transatlantic relations.
Biden’s defence rests on a weak wicket stating that America had no more interest in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda decimated in the country. But that was evinced exactly a decade earlier with the death of Osama Bin Laden, found in neighbouring Pakistan.
Shortly after the Red Army was defeated in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s sleuth agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) took advantage of the Mujahideen forces left behind as the State Department washed its hands off Afghanistan.
They now had these trained attack dogs that could kill, why would they put them to sleep. If they could bring down the mighty Red Army, with all its nuclear capabilities, surely they could exploit the fissures in insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s “death by a thousand cuts” would be soon realised. India knows only too well what a Taliban-led Afghanistan meant for the country, its citizens, lack of economic development, and regional security. The world at large had only heard of the Taliban after 9/11, but India had to deal with Taliban in cahoots with the IC814 hijackers using Kandahar as a base to gain leverage and humiliate India on the world stage. There is little India can do, but India knows a lot more can be done to it, if this story continues to unfold the way it has.
Long before he became Vice President, Joe Biden served in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he voted for the invasion of the Iraq War in 2002 and for military action in Afghanistan. When he was debating Former House Speaker, then-Congressman Paul Ryan, in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate, he promised that the Obama administration would pull out troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
The expiry date was coming, as Biden like Trump seems to display an uneasy aversion to an interventionist foreign policy, which was opposite to Bush, Clinton and in all honesty, most American Presidents of the 20th century.
Biden like Trump, shares some of the concerns about Beijing, a position held across the aisle with Beijing’s belligerence. However, the belief was that Biden unlike Trump would adopt a “small yard, high-fence approach” meaning that it wouldn’t have the open bellicosity of vitriol against the communist party leadership or trade wars, but there would be a cautious approach, especially on dealing with technology.
Given the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and Quad to contain China, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration has missed the forest for the trees in leaving a vacuum in Afghanistan that China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan will all try to exploit, each one with their own Rashomon style version of narration of priorities.
Biden will continue to engage on climate change, COVID-19 issues, however, the “America First” model was witnessed even when India’s request for unused AstraZeneca vaccines was initially rebuked. Biden’s agenda very much includes domestic priorities in injecting both vaccines and capital for the sake of health and economy, a massive infrastructure bill, and Climate Action priorities.
Afghanistan is often called the graveyard of empires, as the British, Russian, and American conquests have seen fickle and fail. It remains to be seen if Afghanistan can be the coup de grace of an administration. After all, successful Presidencies are a result of several policies, but failure can be as a result to tackle just one main issue (as evinced with Trump on COVID and Carter on Iran).
As said earlier this week, Biden may be done with Afghanistan, but Afghanistan may not be done with Biden.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)