Biden’s Other Military Collapse

A post-mortem is needed on President Joe Biden’s decision to make a hasty withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. The resulting debacle will haunt us because of his simplistic concept of what war is about -- a blunder he has made not only in Afghanistan.

The U.S. adopted a nation-building strategy in Afghanistan that went far deeper than the number of troops deployed. It started off badly, with the ten-year rule of the corrupt buffoon Hamid Karzai. It took a troop surge by President Barack Obama (supported by Vice President Biden) to prevent a collapse in 2012. The presidency of Ashraf Ghani doubled down on nation-building to give the Afghan people something worth defending. Gilani has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Columbia University and was working at the World Bank on “social transformation” when tapped for Kabul. He was unsuited to be the kind of charismatic leader needed in wartime, but that was not his mission. He was to spread western values across the land and his “army” created schools and hospitals, infrastructure and enlightenment. Those who embraced this effort to better their lives are now the prey of the Taliban whose only interests in modernity are machine guns and high explosives. By pulling out the troops to “end the war” before evacuating vulnerable civilians, Biden has set the stage for a humanitarian crisis whose horror stories (especially of women and students) will blacken his name. 

Making matters worse was the fear that pervaded the White House. President Biden dared not extend the August 31 deadline in the face of Taliban objections even though he knew not all endangered civilians could be evacuated in time. And the number to be left behind would soar when under terrorist threat from ISIS-K, Americans and Afghan refugees were told to stay away from the Kabul airport whose gates were locked. The airplanes the outside world had mobilized to rescue them could not be reached. As thousands clamored at the gates, the soldiers were told to stand down and leave them to their fate. The troops would have fought to save them, but their leaders back in Washington were afraid to let them do so.

Biden has not been alone in denouncing a “forever war.” Yet, it lasted just as long for the Taliban without them losing the will to fight. But then the Taliban have no network of “defense intellectuals” to discuss theories of limited war, proportionate responses, exit strategies, deconfliction, and self-restraining rules of engagement at think tank conferences and in learned journals. They lack teams of lawyers to review military operations. There are no sophisticated nuances in their primitive concept of total war and its obsession with victory. They cannot be persuaded to quit; they must be stopped dead in their tracks. Despite having the capability to wage decisive warfare, the U.S. no longer does so, allowing the enemy to continue the struggle on their own terms.

A campaign of relentless strikes against enemy groups has elements of total war, but despite tough talk about making terrorists “pay,” Biden has been timid about conducting such a campaign. It should be remembered that he opposed the raids that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq. His puny retaliation against ISIS-K after the Kabul bombing only highlighted his “drop everything and run” exit plan.

In his August 16 address, President Biden blamed the collapse of the Afghan military on its unwillingness to fight. But in another civil war, he is the one purposely trying to collapse resistance to an insurgency backed by a hostile power in a strategic location: Yemen. Just as he pulled logistical and intelligence support from Afghan forces, he has done the same to cripple the nine-nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia fighting the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen.

While Biden has argued that the Afghan conflict “is not in the national interest” in part because the country is so remote, the same cannot be said for Yemen. It sits at the outlet of the Suez Canal-Red Sea maritime link between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. It is one of the most strategic spots on the map under threat from Iran, an avowed enemy of the United States. Yemen is also on the border of Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis have launched numerous missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities that serve global markets and on commercial shipping. The vital consequences of the civil war in Yemen are why Obama provided the Arab coalition with support for its air campaign and President Donald Trump continued that policy.

Yet, at a February 5 press briefing only days into the new administration, State Department spokesperson Ned Price concluded his review of statements about “ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales” and ending “our intelligence sharing arrangement with Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition.” As an afterthought, he did concede that “Saudi Arabia faces genuine security threats from Yemen and from others in the region” but made no mention of Iran or the security of the Red Sea.  

Antiwar and isolationist voices had shifted the theme of the war from the dire strategic consequences of an Iranian-proxy victory to Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis of the day. There is no question that war breeds suffering, but the blame is on those who launch wars of aggression, as we see playing out in Afghanistan. But in Yemen, it is the Saudi coalition fighting back against aggression that is being told to stand down even though the State Department knows “The Houthis benefit from generous military support from the Iranian government to wage attacks against civilian population centers and commercial shipping.” In May, sanctions were imposed “against two senior leaders of Houthi forces in Yemen who are involved in military offensives that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, pose a dire threat to civilians, and destabilize Yemen.” Secretary Anthony Blinken has called on Tehran to pressure the Houthis to negotiate, but the situation has continued to escalate since Iran has no fear of America taking effective action to back its diplomacy.

Millions face starvation. The Houthi captured Hodeidah on the Red Sea, and the Arab coalition will not allow fuel and food into the port where the insurgents will seize the shipments for their own use. On July 27, Special Envoy Timothy Lenderking arrived in Riyadh to discuss with Saudi and Yemini officials the import of fuel into northern Yemen even as the Houthis were launching new offensive operations. But with the U.S. telling the Arabs to stand down, there is no way to deliver supplies to the civilian population.   

Biden did not want to risk American lives in an ingoing Afghan civil war, In Yemen, however, no Americas were in combat. The Arab coalition was doing all the fighting. What President Biden was responding to was pressure from congressional Democrats led by Sen. Bernie Sanders to appease Iran. A resolution calling for the end to all support for the Saudi-led war effort was passed by Congress in 2019. President Trump vetoed it, showing that in a broader context Biden is not continuing the foreign policy of his predecessor in either Yemen or Afghanistan, a policy that was based on strength. If Biden’s behavior does not change, allies around the world will have cause to wonder if the United States can be relied upon as a security partner.

William R. Hawkins has served on the staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications

Image: Ibrahem Qasim

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