In his response to the first question asked after his formal remarks, a question asked by Zeke Miller from the Associated Press. President Biden stated (I’ve transcribed this directly from the video):
Look, let’s put things in perspective here. What interests do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as, as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did. Imagine, just imagine, if that attack, if bin Laden had decided with al Qaeda to have launched an attack from Yemen, would we have ever gone to Afghanistan? Would there ever be any reason we’d be in an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban? What is the national interest of the United States in that circumstance?
This is the clearest and most concise strategic assessment of the US’s interests both against al Qaeda and in Afghanistan that I’ve seen any senior elected or appointed official articulate since September 2001. And the answers to his questions, which are obvious, is that the US would never have begun Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan if bin Laden hadn’t used it as a base of operations to attack the US on 9-11. Absent that, the US has no national interests in Afghanistan.
It is long past time that an American leader – elected, appointed, uniformed – stated this clearly. Good on President Biden for doing so.
I want to make two additional quick, related points. Especially as one of them came up in the second question asked by Justin Sink from Bloomberg. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that two dozen or so State Department officers at the US Embassy in Kabul had written and transmitted a cable through the State Department’s dissent channel on 13 July warning that the Afghan government and military could collapse quickly after the US completed its withdrawal on 31 August 2021 leading to the Taliban quickly retaking control in Afghanistan and, as a result, evacuation operations should begin no later than 1 August. Everyone has latched on to this as evidence that the Biden administration, especially his national security principals, should have known that the Afghan government and military would collapse and the Taliban would quickly retake Afghanistan. As I type this David Ignatius is making this point on MSNBC. But there’s a chronological fallacy in this criticism. The dissent cable’s focus is on what might happen shortly after 31 August. Today is 20 August. Everything initially went sideways between 10 and 12 August, with the Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) beginning on 12 August. While what the Foreign Service officers in Kabul warned did happen, it happened almost three weeks before they had assessed that it would happen. It is important to note here that someone in the Biden administration took the dissent cable seriously because the day after it was transmitted, they announced Operation Allies Refuge, which is the name for NEO mission that is currently ongoing.
This is a non-controversy that a variety of pundits and reporters are trying to turn into a scandal. That President Biden and his team failed to heed the dissent cable and prevent the Afghan government and military from collapsing after 31 August. Which is eleven days from now! I’ve seen this used, by people who should know better, to demand all of President Biden’s national security principals resign or be fired immediately and that they, themselves would have gone to Afghanistan and easily planned this out from the pointy end rather than a bunch of people with advanced degrees in DC wasting time drawing up plans. There is a reason we don’t let people with massive amounts of tactical and operational experience, but with limited strategic experience develop strategy or set policy.
The second point I want to make actually relates to the attempt to use what has happened as a way to beat up on President Biden and his national security team. That national security team is not fully in place. Almost none of the senior appointed positions at the Department of State and USAID have been filled and neither have most of the key ambassadorships. This is not because President Biden hasn’t made the nominations; he has. It is because Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has put a blanket hold on all State Department and USAID nominations, including ambassadorships, which has led to dozens of key positions still unfilled. As a result Secretary Blinken does not have his team in place either at State proper, at USAID, nor in our embassies. Instead he is relying on career Foreign Service Executives to cover down on key jobs in addition to their actual duties, as well as Foreign Service officers below senior executive rank. Ordinarily a Foreign Service Executive from USAID’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) would be on site in Kabul coordinating the Special Immigrant Visa relocations of our Afghan allies. It is unclear if this is the case or if a more junior USAID officer who may not be a PRM specialist is covering down.
At the Department of Defense, it wasn’t until 10 August that the Senate finally confirmed the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities. Up until that point she was serving as an acting Assistant Secretary covering both the position she has now been confirmed too, as well as those for the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy as Senate Republicans were holding up the now confirmed Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Kahl because they didn’t like his tweets. There are at least a 1/2 dozen other of President Biden’s defense nominees still waiting for confirmation in addition to all the State Department ones that Senator Cruz is holding up. If you do not have your full national security team in place, it is going to negatively impact the ability of the Departments of State and Defense to properly function.