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Tough truths emerge from a chaotic Afghanistan

The defensive assertions of an embattled President Biden strain credibility.

Afghan people queue up to board a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19.SHAKIB RAHMANI/AFP via Getty Images

So to cut through the jargon, happy talk, evasion, and obfuscation, this is apparently where we are in our evacuation efforts in Afghanistan. The Biden administration is vowing to evacuate all 10,000 to 15,000 Americans who are in Afghanistan and want to leave, but to do that, we are relying on the good will of the Taliban to let them reach the airport. Why? Because we don’t have the capacity to transport them there. The good news: So far, the Taliban are allowing them reasonably safe passage.

Beyond that, the military hopes to evacuate the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped in our two-decade effort in their country and who now face the prospect of deadly retaliation. However, on that aspect of the evacuation effort, this country doesn’t have the cooperation of the Taliban, who are reportedly using violence to keep many of those Afghans from reaching the safe haven of the airport.


Don’t look for this massive evacuation mission to be completed by President Biden’s self-imposed deadline of August 31. Biden conceded as much on Wednesday, saying that US forces might well remain beyond that date if American civilians aren’t evacuated by then.

Meanwhile, the blame game has begun. The intelligence community has let it be known that it warned about the possibility of a lightning collapse of the Afghan forces and with it, the country.

On the contrary, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted on Wednesday there was nothing in all the intelligence reports and briefings “that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”

Meanwhile, an on-the-defensive president is deflecting, denying, and hair-splitting in a way that strains credibility. Biden would have the American people believe that no mistakes were made and that he had factored this sort of chaos into his withdrawal decision.


“The idea that somehow we could have gotten out without chaos ensuing — I don’t know how that happens,” Biden said Wednesday in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

So whom are we to believe, the president who, less than two months ago, told us the withdrawal from Afghanistan would be done in orderly fashion and that it was highly unlikely that the Taliban would quickly overrun the country when the United States withdrew? Or the president who now tells us that there was no way this could have been avoided?

This, obviously, doesn’t constitute leveling with the American people, something Biden promised always to do in his inauguration address.

A couple larger points. One reason Team Biden can’t give clear answers is because they are trying to work out solutions amid the chaos. That leaves observers to judge professed intentions against underlying realities.

When it comes to Americans still in Afghanistan, there’s reason rooted in realpolitik to be optimistic. If the Taliban refuse to let Americans who hope to leave do so, this administration — any administration — would have to resort to military force to get them out.

“The Taliban knows if they take on American citizens or American military, we will strike them back like hell won’t have it,” Biden told Stephanopoulos. Ruthless though they are, the Taliban are cagey enough to realize that — and to understand that that is not a fight they want. Thus when it comes to the Americans in Afghanistan, they will probably remain cooperative.


The same logic doesn’t necessarily apply to our Afghan allies, however. Despite professions of solidarity and determination, it is notable that no Biden administration official has offered any guarantees that we will go to the military mat for the Afghans who risked their lives to aid our efforts there. Witness Biden’s formulation in his ABC interview.

“If American citizens are left,” after his self-imposed August 31 deadline, “we are going to stay until they are all out,” he said. Notable by its omission was an inclusion of Afghans.

Let’s hope that omission was borne of a diplomatic desire to avoid a public standoff with the Taliban in the interest of brokering a quiet agreement for their evacuation. The alternative — that it’s a tacit first step toward walking away — would shame this country.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.