Former US president Donald Trump has called the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan “the greatest embarrassment in the history of our country”, eviscerating President Joe Biden for his handling of the situation.
When he was in power, Mr Trump struck a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all US forces by May 1 this year. Mr Biden ultimately delayed that deadline by several months, but did go through with the withdrawal.
The Taliban has subsequently conquered Afghanistan at a rapid pace, and last weekend took control of the capital, Kabul.
US forces still control Kabul International Airport, where they are trying to evacuate thousands of American citizens from the country. But the entrances to the airport are being guarded by Taliban checkpoints.
So Afghans who helped the US during its two decades in Afghanistan, and are therefore eligible for special visas, are struggling to get through the chaos and make it inside.
The situation is so unstable that the US embassy has warned its own citizens it “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport.
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Mr Biden and Mr Trump have been blaming each other for the debacle.
Having bragged just a couple of weeks ago that Mr Biden “couldn’t stop” the withdrawal process he had started, and having criticised the Biden administration for taking too long, the former president has since insisted things would have turned out better if he were still in power, despite the shorter May 1 time frame.
Mr Trump was interviewed on Fox News last night, and continued that line of argument.
“It’s a terrible time for our country. I don’t think, in all of the years, our country has ever been so humiliated,” Mr Trump said.
“I don’t know whether you call it a military defeat or a psychological defeat. There’s never been anything like what’s happened here.
“Biden put us in this position. He should have gotten the civilians out first.
“Then he should have taken the military equipment, because we have billions of dollars of brand new, beautiful equipment. Take the equipment out, then take the soldiers out.”
Mr Trump is far from the only one saying this. Biden has come under heavy criticism from all sides for failing to evacuate civilians sooner, before the Taliban had a chance to take over.
“I have been personally trying to tell this administration since it took office, I’ve been trying to tell our government for years that this was coming. We sent them plan after plan on how to evacuate these people. Nobody listened to us,” Afghanistan veteran Matt Zeller, a co-founder of the non-profit group No One Left Behind, said this week.
“They didn’t plan for the evacuation of our Afghan wartime allies. They’re trying to conduct it now, at the eleventh hour. The thing they were most concerned about was the optics of a chaotic evacuation. Well they got exactly what they were most concerned about, by failing to do what was right when we could have done it.
“We had all the people and equipment in place to be able to save these people months ago, and we did nothing.”
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Back to Mr Trump.
The former president suggested America was being “set up” by the Taliban, saying the militant group would consider Americans outside the airport to be “hostages”.
“What happened, and what is happening in Afghanistan, is unbelievable. And we’re being set up by very tough people who are very great negotiators. I tell you what, they’ve been fighting for a thousand years, and everything about them, they negotiate,” he said.
“We’re being set up. They have all of those people, and I guarantee you, in a certain way, they consider them to be hostages.
“Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks. This is not a story that just happened today or yesterday, this is a story that’s going to go on for a long time. And it could have a very bad ending.
“The Taliban – good fighters, I will tell you, they’re good fighters, we have to give them credit for that. They have been fighting for a thousand years. That is what they do, they fight.”
For the sake of accuracy here, I should note that the Taliban was founded in 1994. It has not been fighting for “a thousand” years.
Mr Trump brought up the Taliban’s negotiating skills, which is a decent segue into his own dealings with the group when he was president.
In February 2020, he negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban leader now set to become Afghanistan’s president, Abdul Ghani Baradar, having previously convinced Pakistan to release Baradar from prison.
The agreement, reached without input from the Afghan government, committed America to withdraw from Afghanistan 14 months later, on May 1, 2021.
The two parties also agreed that 5000 Taliban fighters would be released from prison as a precondition for peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.
The Taliban violated the terms of the deal within months of signing it, renewing its attacks on the Afghan army and failing to renounce al Qaeda. Mr Trump, and Mr Biden after him, could have used that as a reason to rip it up. Neither man did so.
Mr Trump alluded to his deal with the Taliban during his interview last night, as he argued the US should have a president “they’re going to respect”.
He then went off on a tangent about his negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
“So when they say, ‘Oh he talked to the Taliban,’ you remember they were criticising me. They criticised me when I talked to Kim Jong-un. Well President Biden told me it’s the single biggest problem we have. I said, ‘Have you ever called him? Have you ever talked to him?’ ‘No I haven’t.’”
I believe he was actually referring to former president Barack Obama there, who told Mr Trump North Korea was America’s top national security priority during the transition between their two administrations in 2016.
Mr Trump went on to become the first US president to step foot inside North Korea. He held a couple of denuclearisation summits with Kim, which ultimately proved fruitless.
“We were supposed to have a war, and probably a very big nuclear war,” Mr Trump said.
“I get along with [Kim] great and I got along with him great. He doesn’t like Biden much, I’ll tell you that. But I got along with him great. And we had no problems. You remember that.
“Remember the big button versus the little button, and the whole thing. We get along great. We had a very good relationship. We met, I got no credit for that one, no problem.
“By the way, I got South Korea to pay billions of dollars. We’re protecting South Korea. They’re very wealthy. They build the ships, the build the televisions, they build, they do everything. They’re a very rich – they were paying us nothing.
“I got them to pay billions and billions of dollars, because we’re protecting them from North Korea. And I had a very good relationship with President Moon [Jae-in] and the people of South Korea, in fact they liked me and I liked them.”
The United States and South Korea share the costs of stationing US forces on the peninsula, an arrangement which serves both countries’ national interests.
South Korea gets a deterrent for North Korea, while the US gets to station forces in a strategically important location in Asia.
While Mr Trump was in office, he sought a 50 per cent increase in South Korea’s contribution, and secured a more modest 8 per cent increase. So South Korea’s contribution rose from $US860 million in 2018 to $US925 million the year after.
I think Mr Trump’s mention of “the big button versus the little button” was a reference to his boast in 2018 that his nuclear button was “bigger and more powerful” than Kim’s. That was back when they were threatening each other.
Back on the subject at hand, today General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an extraordinary admission, revealing just how much the Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan had taken the US by surprise.
“The time frame of a rapid collapse was widely estimated, and ranged from weeks to months, and even years following our departure,” Gen Milley told reporters.
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”
He and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US State Department was “working with the Taliban to facilitate safe passage” to Kabul Airport for American citizens.
But they revealed there was no plan for US forces to leave the airport and escort Americans there safely.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” General Austin said.
“We’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate out. And we’ll do that as long as we possibly can, until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”