President Biden is right that the war in Afghanistan was never one that our military could win, and that withdrawing US troops was, and remains, the right thing to do.
But he still has much to answer for the disastrous way that pullout was executed, not the least of which is the abject failure to protect and evacuate the thousands of Afghan allies who have assisted US forces: interpreters, contractors, advocates, and journalists who were essentially abandoned and are now in the Taliban’s crosshairs.
In his address to the American people Thursday, Biden took no blame for the calamity that has ensued in recent days, even though administration officials were providing assurances that the US-trained Afghan national army and security forces would be able to hold off Taliban fighters for a year or more. Instead, the Taliban swept the country during the course of a weekend.
Biden said the decision not to move earlier was based in part on the lack of desire of Afghans to leave as well as the Afghan government discouraging a mass evacuation effort for fear it would “trigger a crisis of confidence.” But a far more dangerous crisis emerged.
“You can just do the math,” said Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. “It takes a visa 800 days to get processed. So, long before the fall of Kabul, we knew based on simple arithmetic that we did not have time to go through the bureaucratic visa process to get our allies out. We needed to evacuate them and sort out the paperwork later.”
Biden is right: It was never the job of the United States to build or sustain a working, effective Afghan government. But that political mire caused the military mission — two decades of the United States propping up Afghan forces to keep the Taliban at bay at the cost of more than $2 trillion and more than 2,400 lost military service members — to crumble to dust in a matter of days.
“The reason that those forces collapsed is because the corruption that was endemic to Afghan central government had so rotted away their bureaucratic confidence and their moral suasion, that they were unable to inspire frontline troops, and they were unable to get them even basic bullets and rations,” said Representative Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, who was a Marine infantry commander in Afghanistan.
The events over the weekend, including the fall of the Afghan capital of Kabul into Taliban control, were the result of failures that predate Biden taking office. The Trump administration had ordered a withdrawal to be completed months ago — without laying any crucial groundwork that would have led to a less tragic result. There will be time to sort out what happened and where blame should lie. But right now, the Biden administration and Congress must act swiftly to address the chaos on the ground.
That begins with regaining control over Kabul airport, which was shut down after being overwhelmed by thousands of Afghans and US personnel seeking to flee the Taliban-controlled capital. While service has intermittently resumed on the military side of the airport, which yielded the harrowing footage of Afghans clinging to the side of planes Sunday as they attempted to take off, the civilian side remained shuttered — and those left stranded there included hundreds of journalists who were attempting to evacuate.
The United States and its international partners must immediately act to get US nationals and Afghan allies who are in danger of being killed by Taliban fighters out of the country. (The president’s announcement that he has now authorized the deployment of 6,000 American troops to Afghanistan to help with evacuation is a step in the right direction.)
The administration did not heed a bipartisan call months ago by members of Congress to begin bringing home US nationals and evacuating endangered Afghans to Guam to begin the asylum process, but now doing so on an emergency basis is imperative. The administration and Congress should also work to expand the refugee program to accommodate those that the United States promised to protect in exchange for their service to the military operation.
Finally, the Biden administration must develop and execute a counterterrorism strategy to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven from which terrorists can plot attacks against the United States or its allies. And it must use every lever at its disposal, and whatever remaining diplomatic clout it retains with its allies, to pressure Taliban leaders to stop committing human rights violations in the country, including against women and girls.
In addition, Congress must demand — and officials from the current and previous administration must provide — an accounting of all the factors that led to the unexpectedly quick and disastrous fall of Afghanistan.
Biden spent most of his speech Monday making the case that the call to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was right. Few are arguing that point. Now he needs to take responsibility for the bungled way this right-minded strategy was carried out tactically, and move swiftly to quell the chaos.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.