At the end of the worst week of President Joe Biden’s young presidency, this is the question he must urgently answer: “Of all the problems that his Afghanistan troop withdrawal decision has generated, which is most significant?”
Lay aside for the moment the ever-popular Washington blame game about who is responsible for not anticipating the rapid Taliban takeover and the collapse of the democratically elected Afghan government and its army. Or why the Biden administration didn’t better facilitate the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens and their endangered Afghan allies.
It will be crucial over time to digest the lessons learned from our past 20 years in Afghanistan – so we don’t repeat the many mistakes that have been made. However, even that discussion must take a backseat to the urgency of dealing with the immediate risks, their implications and decisions that could control the damage.
The most compelling answer to the question of what Biden “dare not ignore” in Afghanistan falls roughly into three categories: the danger to the Biden presidency’s defining “America is back” narrative, the risks that grows from questions about U.S. competence and commitment, the likely terrorist resurgence alongside the urgent need to decide whether to work with or against the Taliban.
Chief among all of these is the existential threat to Biden’s most inspiring and reassuring narrative to allies and fellow democracies that the U.S. is once again a reliable ally and partner, following the uncertainties that grew among them during the Trump administration.
The consequences from this risk would outstrip all the others posed by the Afghanistan situation in an era that Biden himself characterized as an “inflection point” in history, defined by a systemic contest between democracy and autocracy.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden told a receptive virtual audience on Feb. 21 at the Munich Security Conference, grateful for this “America is back” embrace of allies following the cold shoulder of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.
“We’re at an inflection point,” Biden told them, “between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face – from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic – that autocracy is the best way forward …and those who understand that democracy is essential, essential to meeting those challenges.”
The danger now is that Biden could be confronting an inflection point of a different sort, where democratic allies’ doubts about U.S. reliability grow, where the fragile Afghan democracy becomes an unfriendly theocracy, and where adversaries further test Washington’s resolve in places like Ukraine for the Russians or Taiwan for China.