After four years of Donald Trump, not much is holding what little is left of the GOP’s establishment wing together. Formerly mainstream Republicans like Representatives Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, herself the daughter of a former vice president, have become pariahs for their criticism of the former president; Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, establishment stalwarts in the Senate for decades, have largely acquiesced to Trump’s dominance. But one issue binds the remnants of the party establishment: hyperbolic opposition to Biden’s withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of August.
“When it comes to understanding the war on terror and the dynamics we face as a nation, President Biden has consistently been wrong,” Graham tweeted. “I fear that his Afghanistan decision will prove to be his biggest mistake yet.” Last month, McConnell dinged Biden for “choosing to abandon the fight” in Afghanistan. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Kinzinger called the withdrawal a “crushing defeat.” John Bolton, the former Trump national security adviser and perennial hawk, described it as a “mistake across the board.”
There are no good options in Afghanistan, but none of the Republicans criticizing the pullout are offering any real alternatives. (“We still have troops in Kosovo,” Kinzinger told NBC’s Chuck Todd, perhaps unaware that the U.S. did not invade Kosovo and then spend two decades trying—and failing—to nation-build there, at a cost of more than $2 trillion.) They’re also on the wrong side of public opinion: 73 percent of Americans, including nearly half of Republicans, support pulling out of Afghanistan. This is even true of the party’s nominal leader: Trump’s only complaint is that the withdrawal is not happening fast enough.
Trump himself faced similar criticisms for wanting to pull American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2020 (his administration eventually negotiated a withdrawal deadline that was later moved to May 2021). McConnell called it a “grave mistake”; Graham of “disastrous” consequences. There’s little doubt these GOP hawks believe in staying in Afghanistan—just as they see all long overseas military adventures as necessary to maintain America’s standing at the top of the global pecking order. But these criticisms are being leveled now for crass political reasons, too.
“It is clear to me that President Biden has learned nothing from their Iraq withdrawal debacle,” Graham tweeted last week. “That decision led to the rise of ISIS.… President Biden does not understand conditions are developing in Afghanistan for a reemergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS which will directly threaten the American homeland and our allies.” Michael McCaul, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Fox News last week that “Biden is going to own these ugly images.”
The message in these comments is clear: If and when the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates—if the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan and a terror group takes root there—these Republicans will lambast Biden for failing to maintain an American presence in the country. In short, they want to be able to say, “I told you so.”
Biden has responded to these Republicans—some of whom insist they only want troops to remain one more year—by calling their bluff. “Just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely,” Biden said last week. “After 20 years … I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome. The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago.”
There are justified criticisms of the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan. The swiftness with which the American military has drawn down operations has startled the Afghan military—U.S. forces left Bagram Airfield after 20 years without telling the new commander. It’s not clear, moreover, what the American response will be if the current Afghan government is toppled. The slowness with which translators and other Afghans who have aided the American military effort have been granted visas is a moral and humanitarian failure. All of this suggests that, despite being in Afghanistan for 20 years, American officials had never really concocted an exit strategy and are now rapidly improvising one.
The complaints from hawks like McConnell, Cheney, and Bolton only show the weakness of their position. For decades, these people dictated American foreign policy—with truly “disastrous” results. The freakout from the wheezing remains of the Republican establishment is perhaps the most convincing proof that Biden is doing the right thing.