It is of course impossible to say how the Afghanistan withdrawal would have gone down if Donald Trump had still been in the White House instead of Joe Biden. But we can say this much: Whatever happened, the entire Republican Party and the whole right-wing media propaganda machine would be behind it 10,000 percent.
This is no mystery. If the suicide bomb that killed 13 of our soldiers had exploded during a Trump presidency, Fox News and the GOP would have found a way to blame the “woke generals,” as Trump recently called American brass. And if we had taken out an ISIS-K vehicle that posed an immediate threat to our operations in Kabul, as we in fact did on Sunday, Kevin McCarthy and Laura Ingraham would be carrying on as if Trump had fired the rocket himself.
This is business as usual for the American right, of course, but it’s worth remarking on here because on this occasion, it’s considerably more consequential. The United States has just lost a war, for only maybe the second time in its history (the other unambiguous loss is Vietnam). In a different world, this might have meant that, outside of some partisan bickering, leaders of both parties would be mutually invested in repairing America’s international standing and reputation. But given today’s right, that’s a fantasy. They’ll try to use Afghanistan to destroy Biden, and if that means damaging the country, so what?
This starts with Trump himself. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to his rhetoric over the past two weeks (it’s obviously been harder to do since he lost his perch on Twitter), but it’s been comparatively relentless. According to The Independent, Trump has issued 12 statements in the past five days. Around the same time, interestingly enough, the Republican National Committee purged its website of an old page that praised Trump’s “historic peace agreement” with the Taliban.
In the most recent spate of communication, Trump made the following claim: “If I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal.” Right. He’d have had so much more control over the situation than Biden.
It’s not even clear that Trump’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan was sincere—Chris Miller, the acting secretary of defense at the end of Trump’s presidency, told Defense One that it was a ruse. Regardless, there’s ample reason to worry that Trump would have bumbled his way into escalating matters.
This isn’t just speculation. There’s actual evidence for this. In late March, the Taliban launched a rocket assault on Forward Operating Base Chapman, a U.S. outpost located in Afghanistan’s Khost province. CNN reported that no Americans were killed or injured, so it was presumably some kind of warning shot. But it was the first prominent Taliban attack on U.S. forces since the Doha agreement.
Joe Biden responded by doing … nothing much. Some will see that as weakness. Others will recognize that, given that the attack didn’t amount to much, and given that it happened just five weeks before the originally agreed-upon withdrawal date of May 1, maybe it wasn’t a horrible idea to downplay it.
But last week on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Trump said this, when Hewitt asked him if he would have considered the Doha agreement breached at that moment: “Oh, it would, we would have hit them so hard. It would have been breached, and they would have come back, and they would have said please, please, please. We had a couple of conditions breached, much less than what you just mentioned. That was a big hit. When I saw that and heard about that, I said well, that’s strange. It was strange, because they would have never done that if it was me.”
As ever, Trump oscillates back and forth between the fantasy world of his mind where the Taliban quaked in such fear of him that they never would have done such a thing and the real world where he acknowledges the premise of Hewitt’s softball question. But the point is this: Based on what he said in that interview, he’d have escalated matters and, at that moment, blown up the whole deal.
Trump’s instinct against imperialist adventure was one of the few decent and humane notions the man entertained. But that decent instinct was forever at war within his tortured soul with his insatiable macho instinct to dominate and destroy. On the one hand, he wanted to negotiate with people like the Taliban’s Abdul Baradar and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to prove to the world that he was a master negotiator. On the other, he thinks they’re all shithole people he’d like to destroy, as he did ISIS’s Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani. I have no objection to those two assassinations, but I also don’t think they were “the biggest thing to happen in the Middle East in 100 years,” as he bragged to Hewitt.
Biden, after a rocky first week, has looked steadier on Afghanistan in recent days. His remarks after the 13 deaths of U.S. Marines were appropriate, and nobody doubts that Joe Biden, who has spent the past 20 years showing up without the media paying attention to the Dover, Delaware, air base to which military corpses are often returned, and who ends every speech with “God bless our troops,” cares about our soldiers.
We’ll see what the fateful next couple days bring. We can’t know what will happen. But I’ll say this much. There’s no doubt in my mind which president I’d rather see in the White House. A megalomaniac whose first thought is his own personal glory, or a man who sees himself as an actual public servant whose first thought is the families of Americans in harm’s way. It’s a pretty obvious choice.