Shortly before becoming vice president, Joe Biden traveled to Afghanistan in his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When he returned, he had a succinct assessment of the situation there: "a real mess."
When he takes the presidential oath on Jan. 20, Biden will find not much has changed. He will find himself saddled with a host of serious problems — a raging pandemic, a struggling economy, a toxic political environment — that are largely the fault of Donald Trump. But the blame for being stuck in Afghanistan lies mostly with Barack Obama.
The first volume of his presidential memoir, A Promised Land, is a reminder that when it came to America's longest war, Obama was an unequivocal failure. He expanded the war, sacrificed far more lives, spent hundreds of billions of dollars and departed with the war dragging on and with success as far away as ever.
His book reveals Obama to be a cogent critic of the American effort. When he arrived, his Pentagon officials wanted him to send 30,000 more troops, and Obama was reluctant. The people advising him, he laments, were part of "a U.S. military that prided itself on accomplishing a mission once started, without regard to cost, duration, or whether the mission was the right one to start with."
He understood the scale of the task in Afghanistan. "We needed to drastically improve the (President Hamid) Karzai government's ability to govern and provide basic services," Obama recalls. "We needed to train up the Afghan army and police force so that they would be competent and large enough to maintain security within the country's borders without help from U.S. forces." And unless Pakistan stopped helping the Taliban, he says, "our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail."
Obama should have realized he was buying oats for a dead horse. It dawned on him, he says, "that even in the best-case scenario — even if Karzai cooperated, Pakistan behaved, and our goals were limited to what (Defense Secretary Robert) Gates liked to call 'Afghan good enough' — we were still looking at three to five years of intense effort, costing hundreds of billions more dollars and more American lives." Note: That was his best-case scenario.
In the end, he narrowed the strategy proposed by the generals and set a timetable for drawing down. He discarded the idea of nation-building. But he tripled the size of the U.S. force.
The excuse he gives now is that "the alternatives were worse" — namely, that if we pulled out, the Afghan government would collapse and the Taliban would take over. But that prospect is as real now as it was then.
The ultimate fear was that a Taliban government would once again grant al-Qaida a base to attack America. But if the Taliban have learned nothing else, they have learned that facilitating terrorism on the United States is not a winning strategy.
Today, the Kabul government has control of only a third of the country's districts. The number of civilian deaths attributable to the Taliban has risen steadily this year, despite the peace agreement the U.S. signed in February. In May, the inspector general for the defense department reported, "Pakistan continues to harbor the Taliban and associated militant groups in Pakistan."
Nothing of importance has changed since 2009. But in the Obama years, more than 1,700 American service personnel gave their lives for this futile enterprise — triple the death toll under George W. Bush.
Obama would have done well to heed his vice president's counsel. Biden opposed the 2009 troop surge. In 2015, the president had to decide whether to stick to his plan to withdraw entirely before he left office. Biden saw little to be gained from investing more lives and money. Obama, however, elected to stay in Afghanistan (a decision that presumably will be covered in his second volume). Trump has done the same, at least so far.
Obama, who knew all the reasons this war was a waste, lacked the courage of his doubts. So Biden will face the same dismal options Obama did.
The difference is that Biden has long had a better understanding of our mistakes. In the administration's internal 2015 debate, the New York Times reported, he "argued that the country would revert to chaos, regardless of how long the United States stayed there. 'It doesn't matter if we leave tomorrow or 10 years from now.'"
It still doesn't.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.