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OP-ED: In defense of Joe Biden

  • Published at 03:13 am August 22nd, 2021
biden afghanistan

The US had neither the appetite nor the means -- morally, politically, or financially -- to continue the war in Afghanistan

At the age of 78 years and two months, when Joe Biden took the oath on January 20, 2021, he engraved his name as the oldest person in history assuming the office of the president of the United States. Earlier he served as the vice president under President Obama for eight years from 2009-2017. 

Before that, he served as a senator for 36 long years from 1979-2009. During his Senate years, Biden served as chair of Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committee, including several high offices.

Looking at his credentials and brilliant resume it can be safely opined that up until now he is the most experienced of the US presidents and has brought a huge treasure of knowledge and insight into his presidency.

Inheriting his office from a much-derided and divisive predecessor, both internally and externally, Biden’s election victory blew a fresh breeze of relief, raising hope and expectations both at home and abroad. Since his taking over of what I would call a broken home left by his immediate predecessor, Biden has mostly devoted his energy to fixing the shattered pieces, addressing the onslaught of the Covid pandemic, reinvigorating the economy, and helping ordinary people pick up their normal life. 

He also rolled back Trump’s cruel policies of refusal of entry of the Latin American immigrant children and detaining them in the detention centres and banning visitors from certain Muslim countries to the US.

Foreign policy

On foreign policy imperatives, while Biden focused his primary attention on China, something which he inherited from his predecessor (though it’s argued that Biden is more hawkish on China) and strengthening cooperation among the Quad members, a grouping of four countries including the US, India, Japan, and Australia, with the sole objective of restricting China’s rise as a global economic and military superpower. 

He was also endeavoring in revitalizing the Western alliance of democracies and Nato partners which were neglected by Trump.

While Biden was busy with his priority agendas, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in early May landed on his lap unexpectedly, which was deliberately ignited by then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to salvage his sagging political situation and avert a possible prosecution from charges of corruption. The Middle East crisis temporarily distracted him from his other priorities. Though Biden publicly voiced the long-standing US stance of defending Israel and stand by it may what come, he also tasked Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and also worked quietly behind the scenes speaking to the traditional friends to broker a cease-fire between the two warring sides, promising some sort of relief also to the aggrieved Palestinians.

In Afghanistan

With regard to the present Afghan crisis, it can be strongly argued that it was none of Biden’s fault or his doing. It’s a burden of history he inherited from his three predecessors. It fell upon him to extricate the nation from an unending war and uncertain future.

He was only putting a finishing touch. While I am not a great fan of Trump, I supported his decision to quit Afghanistan. President Biden has only carried through the decision, being a strong believer of it. There are reports that as vice president under Obama, Biden had strongly argued against increasing US troops in the country.

What else could he have done? Delay the withdrawal of the troops? To what purpose? Initiate a more staggered and systematic withdrawal? What’s the guarantee that such a strategy would have ensured a smooth glorious evacuation? It’s more of a speculation now of what would have happened or what wouldn’t have happened.

Twenty years of occupation, incurring colossal loss of human lives, squandering nearly $2 trillion, most of which has gone to the coffers of the US defense industries, the contractors, and the corrupt Afghan officials. On the other hand, neither did the Afghan government soldiers come up to the mark, with years of training and modern weaponry, nor was there any sense of purpose.

When President Trump initiated the peace talk with the Taliban in Qatar in February 2020, it implicitly signalled that the US war edifice and its mission of “state-building” in Afghanistan had started crumbling. The proposal to start peace talks was not initiated by the Taliban. The US took the initiative, and the message was clear to the Taliban that the US is finally on its back foot. Nor do they have any more appetite or means -- politically, socially, morally, or financially -- to sustain the war any longer.

Taliban kept fighting

On the other hand, the Taliban had no desire to fall into false promises. They fought one of the longest wars in world history for 40 long years from 1980 onwards with two superpowers, one after another, witnessing the fall of the Soviet Union as a consequence and fighting through four US presidencies under the most severe and trying conditions.

They knew they had time on their side, and there was no rush. They were mentally, physically, and morally prepared for continuing the war for as long as it was necessary. They had no incentive to engage in peace talks, unless it was on their terms.

The Afghans are a ferocious and battle-hardened nation, fighting foreign invaders for centuries, starting from before the invasion of Alexander the Great to the British to the Soviets and now the Americans. But none could subjugate them permanently. 

A bit of history

According to historical records, Alexander the Great suffered the losses of a huge number of his troops in Afghanistan in one day, equal to the number of what he lost in his four-year campaign in the Mediterranean and Persia. In retaliation, he razed a few cities and townships, killing thousands of innocent people, including women, children, and old people.  

Yet, he had to withdraw in the face of stiff resistance. No wonder Afghanistan earned the enduring epitaph of “the graveyard of empires.” 

So, it will be totally unfair to apportion the entire blame on President Biden for what has gone wrong in Afghanistan. It was just a sequel to what was initiated by President Bush in the first place following the tragic event of 9/11. The repercussion; the blame game. Trump has also joined the cacophony, asking for Biden’s resignation -- sounds rather ironic.

It’s my own view that once the dust settles and the high emotions are doused, history will applaud President Biden for having removed a cancerous growth from the American war psyche.

But what about Afghanistan? 

The return of the Taliban as victorious at blitzkrieg speed back in the government saddle literally without any resistance and on the heel of the cowardice of puppet president Ashraf Ghani with his team says it all. What however was somber in the midst of the dramatic events and optics: There were no blood baths as anticipated, though some stray incidents of killing, harassment of women, and lootings were reported -- not unusual in such mayhem and chaos following a long war.

But during the 20 years of American occupation, the Afghan people, especially the new generation who grew up during these times, enjoying a certain freedom, liberty, and education -- what will happen to them? On the face of it, their entire lives have been turned upside down. Of particular concern is the new breed of Afghan women, who have tasted the joy of freedom, liberty, modern education, and participation in the affairs of the state, including legislative, business, and other areas of social activities. 

What future is lying ahead of them under the new dispensation? Will they again be reduced to managing house chores, cooking, and producing children only? This new generation of Afghans have become a new class in the current vortex of the country overnight, and how they will adjust to or assimilate under the new system is also a vexing issue. These are the larger pictures the world community and the friends of Afghanistan should consider and ponder about.

It brings a sense of relief when one of the top leaders of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, who spent nearly eight years in Guantanamo Bay as a prisoner following his arrest in Pakistan in 2010, and now considered to be the next president of Afghanistan, declared that there will be no reprisal of the women, and there will be no return to the pre-2001 social customs. His assurances were repeated by Zabiullah Mujahid, the spokesperson of the Taliban in their first press conference on August 17, following their taking over full control of Kabul. 

Mujahid was well-composed and serious, though not smiling. He appeared suave and media savvy. He answered all the questions from an array of international journalists, including from women, and local independent media. The questions ranged from the foreign and domestic policies of the new government, treatment of the women, providing a haven to the terrorists, use of Afghan land by foreign terrorists against other countries, relations with the neighbours, cultivation of poppy etc. He was unequivocal in their opposition to the previous practices and stated that the new Afghanistan government would endeavour to transform the country to a modern state, albeit following Islamic precepts and values. 

He also assured that there would be no retribution of the government soldiers and people who fought against the Taliban. He held optimism that the new government would be an inclusive one, inducting leaders from all backgrounds. There was no unpleasant scene, no rancour, or annoyance displayed by the Taliban spokesperson during the hour-long session of the press conference.

A new regional equation

Notwithstanding Mujahid’s all positive-sounding notes, there will likely be new regional equations and significant short, medium, and long-term political and strategic implications for the region and beyond. If it’s any indication, some of the regional powers and countries are already scrambling to establish an early foothold in Afghanistan and have expressed their desire to cooperate with the new set-up.

As a close neighbour and fellow members of Saarc, OIC, and various other international organizations, we only hope for the best for Afghanistan. We wish them unimpeded peace, prosperity, and stability.

The country has suffered for a long time. We hope this will be the last of the misfortunes the country has to go through during its thousands of years of history. Let the world, especially the West, stop berating the Taliban and instead help the new government become a responsible member of the world committee, while abiding by certain universal values and concentrating on the reconstruction and development of their nation.

President Biden, as a good-hearted person, may like to change his Afghan prism and work closely with the new Afghan government with an open mind to re-build the country. It might pay off, in the long run, cooperating with them rather than working against them.

Postscript: The US authorities couldn’t be more disingenuous to ask the Bangladesh government to take in a part of the Afghan refugees. It’s not only preposterous, but also reeks of insensitivity and a lack of knowledge.

Ashraf ud Doula is a former Secretary and Ambassador of Bangladesh to several countries.

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