The Biden administration’s loss of credibility
On September 28, 2021, United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The senators asked him to testify on the disastrous exit from Afghanistan, which allowed Islamist radicals to co-opt Western-trained troops and appropriate military hardware valued at some $80 billion. The value of the forfeited equipment represents more than 11 percent of the total U.S. defense spending this year – more than Russia’s and any other European country’s defense budget. The Taliban now have better-equipped armed forces than most other countries in the region.
When questioned by the senators, Secretary Austin made a surprising statement: “The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away, in many cases without firing a shot, took us all by surprise.” And he added: “It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”
Washington should have known
This declaration is strange and disconcerting. How fit is this administration, one wonders, to assess, analyze and respond to complex crises in today's world?
Afghanistan’s armed forces were apparently well trained and formidably equipped. But this does not mean they were willing to fight. The morale of Afghan government troops was extremely low, and understandably so. Why should they fight for a corrupt and ineffective government, ill-suited to represent the interests of the Afghan people – in a war that would become hopeless as soon as foreign forces withdrew? The final, symbolic proof of the U.S.’s security policy failures in Afghanistan was the cowardly escape of its president.
At Geopolitical Intelligence Services, we do not have the resources of the Pentagon and the White House, but we knew that government troops would not resist the Taliban. See this quote from GIS comment published on August 4, 2021:
We erred in assuming that some of the regional leaders, such as Ismail Khan in Herat and the Uzbek General Dostum, would be able to mount resistance; that was not to happen. The Taliban, already made stronger by the capture of Western equipment and support from parts of the trained army, would crush any opposition.
If we take the second part of the secretary’s statement literally, “It would be dishonest to claim otherwise,” we need to worry about the naivete of the administration and we are left wondering how these people would act in a broader crisis. Unpreparedness and naivete are the most dangerous factors in conflicts, as they lead to flawed decision-making.
The president and his team prefer to blame the Afghan government and the previous administrations in WashingtonIt was naivete that led Washington to the one-sided, untimely decision to exit Afghanistan without consulting allies. We do not challenge the assertion that a retreat was eventually inevitable. However, the timing and the manner chosen by the U.S. were disastrous.
The debacle raises concerns over the competence of the current administration’s key figures and advisors, and President Joe Biden’s rationale for choosing them.
Incompetence is dangerous
What is most worrisome is that the administration refuses to take responsibility for the events, admit its failure, accept the consequences and learn. The president and his team prefer to blame the Afghan government (which is to be blamed for irresponsible governance and corruption, but not for this chaotic exit) and the previous administrations in Washington. Neither Mr. Biden nor the Pentagon’s top brass has had the courage to admit the truth.
We know that some wars in the past, especially World War I, broke out simply because of misjudgments, unpreparedness and incompetence. These days, the Western world, led by the U.S., faces a volatile relationship with China that could escalate at any time. Errors of judgment can be disastrous. Knowledge, prudence, pragmatism and political acumen are critical in such situations. They have been absent in the Afghan debacle.
The world is gradually becoming an increasingly fragmented and outright dangerous place. There is no single dominant power or clear bipolar order. This fluid setup means tensions are rising. China claims a leading position globally in political, economic and military matters. Beijing is pushing hard to overcome the West’s containment policy and project power in the Pacific Ocean. This pressure could upset the existing balance of power. When push comes to shove, will Washington be prepared and coolheaded?
This is also a call to America’s allies. We remember well the laments over President Donald Trump’s unpredictability and sometimes crude behavior. Now, we have a well-mannered president in the White House, yet serious doubts have arisen about his team’s ability. This is scary. European countries will have to take their role in maintaining global security more seriously. Reliance on the U.S. only is risky. At the same time, a stronger, more engaged Europe could help in the global power competition.