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OPINION

The Afghanistan withdrawal was a shambles. Why is Biden pretending it wasn’t?

It’s time the president stopped passing the buck.

Taliban security personnel stand guard along a street to remove the window tint films from the cars of the commuters at a checkpoint in Fayzabad district of Badakhshan province on April 4.OMER ABRAR/AFP via Getty Images

The White House issued a report late last week defending the 2021 abandonment of Afghanistan as an act of statesmanship that enhanced America’s standing in the world. On CBS News the next morning, Margaret Brennan, the network’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, bluntly dispelled the White House gaslighting.

“President Biden’s decision to pull the US out of Afghanistan led to the collapse of its government, its military, the death of 13 Americans, and it left tens of thousands of Afghans hoping to escape,” Brennan recounted. “Girls over 12 can no longer be educated. It is one of the darkest moments of the Biden presidency to date.”

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Twenty months after Biden’s order to remove all remaining US forces from Afghanistan, it is clearer than ever that it was a grievous mistake — as the president’s advisers had warned it would be. Yet the White House has for some reason chosen this moment to double down, declaring, in the words of National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, that Biden “is very proud” of how the withdrawal was carried out and insisting that the operation had been free of chaos.

In reality, the operation was a murderous shambles and its consequences have been terrible.

Almost overnight, Biden ruined much of what Americans had accomplished during two decades of sacrifice in Afghanistan. Millions of civilians were plunged into a fresh hell of repression and destitution. The Taliban’s brutal Islamists had an enormous strategic victory — as well as more than $7 billion worth of US weapons, ammunition, aircraft, and vehicles — handed to them on a silver platter. Thousands of Afghans who had put their lives on the line to assist US forces were left behind to face the vengeance of the Taliban. The chaos that accompanied the hasty retreat, with scenes of desperation so eerily similar to the fall of Saigon in 1975, conveyed a global message of American weakness — a message Vladimir Putin undoubtedly read as a green light to invade Ukraine six months later.

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Not surprisingly, the president’s Afghanistan disaster took an ugly toll on his popularity. When Biden entered the White House, his approval rating was above 50 percent, where it remained consistently positive for his first seven months in office. With the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, public approval of Biden’s performance flipped from positive to negative. It has remained underwater ever since.

Even as the administration touts the pullout from Afghanistan as a success, it simultaneously attempts to pass the buck for everything that went wrong to former president Donald Trump. The White House line is that its hands were tied because Trump had already negotiated a withdrawal from Afghanistan, yet failed to provide plans for implementing it. Trump’s policy in Afghanistan was undeniably atrocious, but it was Biden’s decision to embrace that policy and make it his own. In his first weeks as president, after all, Biden had overturned dozens of other Trump policies. Notably, he reversed his predecessor’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and restarted negotiations on an Iranian nuclear deal. “This one they chose not to reverse,” Donna Brazile, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, told The Atlantic. “If you don’t reverse it, you own it.”

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Robert Gates, the Washington sage who served as President Barack Obama’s first defense secretary, describes Biden in his acclaimed 2014 memoir as “a man of integrity” who has nevertheless “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue.” Sadly, the humiliating debacle in Afghanistan reinforced that assessment. It is too late now for the president to undo the havoc, suffering, and sheer barbarism unleashed by the abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban. But if Biden is truly a man of integrity, he should at least be able to concede that he was misguided.

No one likes to admit having been wrong. But other presidents have done so. Obama faulted himself for overthrowing Libyan despot Muammar Qaddafi without having a plan for what to do afterward. Ronald Reagan told the nation that, despite good intentions, he had wrongly traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1998, Bill Clinton acknowledged having lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

If they could come clean, Biden can too. There is no integrity in pretending that the Afghanistan bug-out was anything but a fiasco. Americans know better and they know that Biden knows better. The White House ought to recall its feeble report, and replace it with a candid mea culpa.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.

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