Joe Biden was bluffing with a weak hand again. Faced with the prospect that America’s promised retreat from Afghanistan wouldn’t be complete by month’s end, the commander in chief began backtracking on his exit date last week. “If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay to get them all out,” he told ABC News.
But the enemy gets a vote now, thanks to our rush to the exits. The Taliban called him on it, warning that his August 31 deadline—just one week from now!—was a “red line” and crossing it would “provoke a reaction.”
Biden’s counter? To fold. At least, that’s my interpretation, based on the administration’s comments on Monday.
“In the days remaining, we believe we have the wherewithal to get out the American citizens who want to leave Kabul,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Monday, leaving some wiggle room with those last five words. But what did he mean by “days remaining”? Sullivan also said the U.S. was “consulting” with the Taliban on the evacuation, and that in regards to whether the U.S. would need the Taliban’s permission to continue the retreat beyond August 31, “Ultimately, it will be the president’s decision how this proceeds, no one else’s.”
Having abandoned Bagram Air Base and allowed Kabul to fall, Biden now finds himself in the unenviable position of relying on the good will of the Taliban to permit Americans to safely exit the country. This whole situation is a tinderbox.
The administration rolled Sullivan out before the press to spin the situation as best as possible, which included making the too-slick-by-half claim that “No operation like this, no evacuation from a capital that has fallen into a civil war could unfold without those images.” The notion seems to be that the “chaotic scenes” we have witnessed this last week was inevitable. Team Biden deserves credit for being able to bullshit with the best of them. I almost miss the transparent lies of Team Trump. Almost.
The first rule in politics is to under-promise and over-deliver, but Biden has done the opposite going back to his botched “Independence Day” vaccination goal. And the first rule of negotiation is to be willing to walk away from a bad deal, but Biden forfeited that luxury with his precipitous withdrawal and now finds himself at the mercy of the Taliban.
Politically speaking, Biden is desperate for this to end quickly lest he end up looking like Jimmy Carter in 1979, but with many more American lives in the balance. Aside from the obvious physical threat of the Taliban (or other actors) taking Americans hostage, Biden’s political career is also figuratively being held hostage. Even if the Taliban proves to be a disciplined hierarchy and even if ISIS (“The threat is real…. It is persistent,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday) and other groups don’t harm any Americans, Biden still risks provoking a reaction from the Taliban if he does not meet his deadline.
And what happens to however many Americans, and tens of thousands of our allies, who are still there after that?
Of course, the Taliban could be bluffing, themselves, but it would be naive to assume they are rational actors. At the very least, one suspects that the Taliban are more likely to stand behind their red line than, say, we were when Barack Obama drew (and then erased) his line in the Syrian sand.
Biden clearly doesn’t want to tempt fate by missing this deadline, but what’s the alternative? The option of leaving Americans behind is unthinkable—even if Biden’s Defense Secretary hinted we might when he promised to “get everyone that we can possibly evacuate,” at least, “until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”
Biden can’t abandon Americans, but he also can’t afford to have this withdrawal turn into more of a disaster than it already has. The obvious option is to retreat faster. This makes it look more like we are being kicked out than that we have decided to leave. We are left with a situation where some tattered group of radicals is now dictating American policy, as we hurry to meet this arbitrary deadline.
This deadline is looking more like a ticking time bomb than an aspirational goal or flexible target date. The clock is ticking and time is running out. On Joe Biden.