by Susan Crabtree
In the aftermath of any botched U.S. military operation, what inevitably follows are numerous news cycles of noisy recriminations across Washington’s national security and foreign policy establishment. Republican lawmakers and some conservative military and diplomatic hands have blasted President Biden as the Afghanistan withdrawal spiraled out of control over the last two weeks, but there have been glaring exceptions.
Conspicuously absent from the after-action finger-pointing are nearly all of the 500 national security experts — both civilians and former senior uniformed officers — who endorsed Joe Biden for president last fall, while denouncing President Trump as an unfit commander-in-chief.
A website set up to promote the Biden endorsement, nationalsecurityleaders4biden.com, is now defunct while the group’s Twitter account hasn’t been tweeted from for nearly three months. As of Wednesday morning, the last two tweets, from early June and mid-May, were focused on climate change. From those who openly backed Biden for president, only Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and CIA director under President Obama, has criticized Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. Late last week, Panetta predicted that the U.S. would have to eventually send troops back into the country to confront a re-established al-Qaeda and ISIS threat there.
Over the least two days, RealClearPolitics reached out to more than two dozen of the highest-ranking military and civilian leaders on the list of nearly 500 of those publicly backing Biden in September of last year. Only a handful responded.
John Negroponte, who served as the first director of national intelligence during the George W. Bush administration and previously as its ambassador to Iraq, was one of just two contacted by RCP who came forward to stand by their endorsement of Biden. The rest either did not respond to the inquiries or said they were too busy to weigh in, including Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense in the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Flournoy was a top contender to become Biden’s defense secretary, but her connections to the defense industry ultimately sank her candidacy. A spokeswoman for Flournoy late Tuesday told RCP over email that the former senior Pentagon official is “tied up at this time and unable to comment.”
Negroponte, however, didn’t hesitate when asked whether, in retrospect, he has second thoughts about the Biden endorsement. Within 30 minutes of RCP’s inquiry, he emailed to say that he “definitely” stands by his decision, which he called a “choice between two candidates.” The veteran diplomat and top intelligence official added that he never supported either Donald Trump’s or Biden’s withdrawal policy in Afghanistan. “I happen to disagree with both him and Mr. Trump on the issue of how we end our military involvement in Afghanistan,” he said.
Pressed on his views of how history will view Biden’s chaotic and deadly pullout form the country, Negroponte demurred for now. “Let’s let the dust settle and leave some time/space for those kind of judgments,” he replied.
Of those national security leaders backing Biden last fall whom RCP reached out to, only one readily came forward to vigorously defend the president’s chaotic and deadly Afghanistan withdrawal.
Charles Adams Jr., the former ambassador to Finland and international arbitration expert who served as the co-chair of Americans Abroad for Obama, echoed Biden’s contention that the rapid collapse of the Afghan military and its government could not have been predicted. He said the Taliban’s rapid takeover forced Biden’s hand and gave him no choice but to work with the Islamic terrorist group to evacuate both Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. and/or coalition forces over the last two decades.
“The withdrawal was the correct decision,” said Adams, who is prolific Democratic Party fundraiser. “It was a necessary decision. I’m among those who for 20 years have questioned the purpose and the feasibility of what was at the time stated to be the mission of the American forces in Afghanistan. And so, I applauded the decision to withdraw, and I continue to applaud.”
Adams also dismissed assertions by Panetta and many other national security and intelligence experts that terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, are reconstituting in Afghanistan and will pose a dangerous threat to the United States as a result.
“There’s actually no reason to believe that the Taliban are going to encourage or harbor or be in a position to execute from Afghanistan any terrorist activity aimed abroad,” he said. “I can assure you that over the horizon surveillance is going to be intense, and the hazard of terrorist attacks from the Taliban or any of its protegees is really not something that is overwhelmingly concerning.”
Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria under President Obama, conceded that the withdrawal was “obviously not perfect,” but he continues to “totally support” Biden.
“When I compare his administration to the dysfunctional Trump team, the choice still has to be clearly in favor of Biden,” he said in an emailed statement.
Ford argued that the Taliban was gaining strength, “as their blitzkrieg this summer showed,” and 20 years of the U.S. training the Afghan army was “not building a self-sufficient force.”
“To say we could sustain at 2019 or 2020 levels indefinitely ignores that the Taliban were getting stronger,” he argued. “… Rather than ask only about Biden administration errors, we also should be asking why (1) so many Afghan soldiers wouldn’t fight, and (2), [why] so many American citizens in Afghanistan ignored State Department warnings from April, May and June to depart immediately.”
Adams’ comments directly contradict warnings from Panetta and dozens of conservative-leaning or independent military and intelligence experts. On Monday, 90 retired generals and admirals called on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to resign over what they said was the “disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” including the deaths of 13 American service members and some 180 Afghans in a terrorist bombing at Kabul airport last week. The letter’s signatories include John Poindexter, who served as President Reagan’s national security adviser, and House Rep. Ronny Jackson, the former top White House physician to Presidents Obama and Trump.
Panetta on Tuesday warned that it’s a mistake to rely on the Taliban for cooperation because the militant Islamic group cannot be trusted and has provided a safe haven for terrorists in the past and “will continue to provide a safe haven for terrorists.” Al-Qaeda likely will re-establish itself in Afghanistan, he told CNBC’s Shepard Smith, citing an interview with a Taliban commander who argued there is “no proof” that Osama bin Laden was behind 9/11.
Another former defense secretary, William Cohen, who served under President Clinton, offered a mixed review, giving Biden credit for following through on the withdrawal while placing at least part of the blame on the intelligence community for its poor execution. In the same breath, Cohen also faulted the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to warn of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill storming and siege.
“I think President Biden did the right thing because the American people, 70% want out,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon on Aug. 17 before the Kabul airport bombing. “He said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get them out. He didn’t do it the way he planned. I think he has to be held accountable for it and those in his administration have to answer the question, ‘What did they know, when did they know it and upon whom did they rely and was it reliable?’”
“And you have to stand up and say we made a mistake relying on this information,” he added. We made a mistake in this country when our own intelligence community and FBI didn’t tell us the mob was going to storm Capitol Hill and try and hang the vice president of the United States are, kill the speaker of the House.”
Anthony Zinni, who headed the U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000 and who also publicly backed Biden last fall, hasn’t publicly criticized Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. Still, Zinni has expressed deep concern about the fate of Afghans who worked closely with the U.S. military and thousands more who worked on civilian programs in support of the U.S. and coalition efforts.
Zinni last week sent a letter to the top leaders in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, urging them to work closely with the administration to protect Afghans who worked with U.S. officials.
“These individuals who stood directly with America face grave danger now,” he wrote. “And we must stand with them and also prioritize them for U.S.-led evacuations.”
Yet, after the U.S. completed its withdrawal on Monday, countless Afghans who assisted the U.S. or coalition forces in some way were left behind. Many remain in hiding, worried that the Taliban is hunting them down, including an Afghan interpreter who helped rescue Biden and two other senators while visiting the country in 2008 when they were forced to land in a snowstorm.
Panetta compared the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961. “I think of John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs,” Panetta told CNN. “It unfolded quickly, and the president thought that everything would be fine and that was not the case.”
Biden has a chance of overcoming the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, Panetta argued, but only if his administration successfully evacuates all Americans and U.S. allies remaining in Afghanistan, makes it clear that the U.S. will pursue terrorists in the country, and pushes the Taliban to recognize human rights.
“Ultimately, he’s going to have to say that he has learned the lessons from his experience in Afghanistan and the mistakes that have been made,” Panetta said.
But Biden showed no contrition, responsibility, or remorse in the speech he delivered Tuesday declaring America’s longest war finally over. Instead, the president boasted of the “extraordinary success” of the evacuation mission, arguing that no other country in the world had ever airlifted so many people so quickly out of a dangerous situation. He also tried to turn the obvious hostage threat of leaving an estimated 100-200 Americans behind into an accomplishment. “Ninety percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” he said during his remarks, pledging to “make arrangement to get them out if they so choose.”
Biden also rejected any notion that the chaotic and deadly evacuation could have taken place in a more “orderly fashion” if U.S. military and diplomatic leaders had planned better for the Taliban takeover. “I respectfully disagree,” he asserted.
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