Opinion: Step up, Biden. Be straight about Afghanistan. Veterans deserve that much.
A Mississippi River’s worth of ink was spilled over the past five years on the corrosiveness of former President Trump’s “deny, deflect and counterattack” politics. Many, like me held hope Joe Biden would reject this politically successful but functionally disastrous tactic perfected by Roger Stone and Team Trump. Our country deserves better. If leadership is measured by how much responsibility a leader takes when things go wrong, President Biden is not measuring up on Afghanistan.
Every fellow service member I spoke to in the past few weeks, who began watching the fall of each provincial capital in early August, saw their sadness melt to anger. The anger is not about pulling troops out of Afghanistan, it’s at the failure of our leadership to be straight with us. The expressions of this anger range from calls for impeachment or resignation to vociferous defenses of the tough hand President Biden was dealt by the Trump administration. We are all reinforcing our previous positions in part because there is a leadership void. President Biden is not showing the kind of leadership we need in this moment.
Each time Biden is asked about his responsibility for executing this withdrawal, he deflects blame to the Afghan army or his own advisors. In his speech on Tuesday, he continued to deflect responsibility, saying “the assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan national security forces that we had trained over the past two decades, and equipped, would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban. That assumption that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown turned out not to be accurate.” The president went on to say “we were ready” when the Afghan government collapsed. These words ring hollow because the harrowing conditions of the evacuation we beheld in real time contradict him. He must do better and take responsibility.
In addition, as former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster pointed out in mid-August, Biden, like his predecessors, failed to make the public case for the conduct of this withdrawal. The popularity of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan drove the tactics, which meant reducing troop levels at all costs. The Taliban took us up on the offer. Leadership, as opposed to political opportunism, is determining the best course and making the public case. Where things stand now, the time to show presidential leadership is fleeting.
The president was right to hold up the 13 fallen Marines, sailors, and soldiers as heroes and to honor them. Without their sacrifice, thousands of Americans might still be trapped in Afghanistan. He was right to hold up their brothers and sisters in arms who did the heavy lifting to deliver so many to safety. But President Biden fell short of acknowledging his role in putting them all in a harrowing predicament. Here are the words he should say to begin to accept responsibility:
“My fellow Americans, we have reason to breathe deeply, to mourn and to reflect on our twenty years of war now that we no longer have troops in Afghanistan. There is still work to be done, but I want to acknowledge where we are now.
As the long story of our involvement in Afghanistan nears its conclusion, I want every American citizen and service member to know I take every ounce of responsibility for this withdrawal. It happened faster than we planned, and my administration was caught by surprise by the speed of collapse. While I am relieved and amazed by the work our military did to airlift 116,700 American citizens and allies since the Taliban takeover, I should have anticipated the collapse and had a more robust plan in place. We owe fallen and living veterans of this war a steadfast resolve to do better. I pledge to do so today.
Several Americans who wish to leave are still in Kabul and we will work tirelessly to get them out. The conditions on the ground deteriorated to the point it was no longer safe to continue evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, but we have a plan in place to get our people home. America does not leave our own or our friends behind.
We will maintain a robust intelligence capability to scrutinize the Taliban’s actions. Al-Qaida and its offshoots must not find fertile ground to launch an attack on the United States. On this point, we will not compromise.
Earlier this month, I said ‘the buck stops with me” and I meant it. We should have been more prepared to deal with this hasty withdrawal. I am incredibly grateful to those Americans in uniform and otherwise who made it happen despite the challenges. It is those Americans who deserve the praise for bringing our folks home.
May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Saying these words will not make President Biden a better leader. These words will not necessarily change policy or boost his approval ratings. There is a large portion of the electorate that will never accept his leadership.
But the case for hope in the American presidency as a place to look to for leadership is passing and accepting responsibility without equivocation is a step on the road to rebuilding trust. We should implore President Biden to do so during the most consequential events of his presidency. We need it now more than ever.
Pitcock, a US Marine Corps veteran and member of the principled conservative organization, Principles First, is a business owner in Texas.
Originally published at https://www.houstonchronicle.com on September 1, 2021.