Biden’s Afghanistan debacle demands a return of war powers to Congress
WASHINGTON: By any standard, our decision to hastily withdraw from Afghanistan before guaranteeing the safety of U.S. and NATO citizens and the thousands of Afghans who worked with us is an extraordinary debacle. Why were the U.S. intelligence agencies caught by surprise at the rapid Taliban takeover of the country?
Editorially, The Washington Post noted that
“President Biden’s blunders in what is—-suddenly—-a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan may be measured in many ways. One is by searching the sorriest episodes of U.S. foreign policy history for an analogy.”
Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon E.Panetta drew a comparison with the Bay of Pigs, the 1961 U.S. attempt to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro, which ended with hundreds of CIA-backed invaders killed or captured after President John F. Kennedy denied them air cover.
Another parallel many have pointed to is the desperate plight of those who were working with the U.S. in Vietnam in April 1975.
Images of Afghans clinging to a departing U.S. military plane—-some fell to their deaths—-are reminiscent of the last days of Saigon.
Why did President Biden not renegotiate the hasty withdrawal deal his predecessor, Donald Trump, cut with the Taliban? The Taliban’s repeated violations of that pact gave Biden a legitimate reason for doing so.
This should not be a partisan issue. Republicans, after all, with a few exceptions, embraced the Trump plan to leave Afghanistan even earlier, also with no proper provision to protect our Afghan associates. Today, some of the harshest critics of what is now happening are Democrats. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a former Marine Corps officer who served four tours in Iraq wrote of Afghanistan’s break-neck implosion: “To say that today is anything short of a disaster is dishonest. Worse, it was avoidable.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said the Taliban’s rapid takeover stems from “an intelligence failure echoing concerns across the political spectrum that the Biden administration appeared to have been taken by surprise by how quickly and easily the militants overran a national security force that the U.S. spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.”
“There is plenty of blame here,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led a review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for President Barack Obama in 2009. “The most egregious is the complete failure of strategic planning and diplomacy.”
In Riedel’s view, Biden is “stuck by a poorly constructed deal” negotiated last year by President Donald Trump and signed off on by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, even keeping their lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad,” whom Riedel described as “inept.” But the deal, as reported in a March 2020 Council on Foreign relations report was open to negotiations by Biden (U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal: What to Know) Biden’s withdrawal was not, and is not, hampered by the Trump administration’s negotiations.
He concludes that,
“The hasty and precipitous withdrawal was begun in the start of the fighting season instead of in the winter. The evacuation was poorly planned. It cries out for accountability.”
Our NATO allies, who joined us in Afghanistan, were not properly consulted by either the Trump or Biden administrations about a precipitous U.S. withdrawal. Germany’s conservative candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, Armin Laschet, called the withdrawal of forces “the greatest debacle that NATO has experienced since its foundation.”
The time has come to return to the Constitution when it comes to going to war.
The Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress. Yet, the last time Congress declared war was in World War 11. Since then we have gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq Afghanistan, and many other places without a congressional declaration.
Early in August, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced legislation to repeal decades-old authorizations for U.S. military missions in the Middle East. This being a first step in a larger effort in Congress to reclaim lawmakers’ war powers from the executive branch. A bipartisan majority of the panel voted 14 to 8 in favor of repealing authorizations Congress passed in 1991 and 2002. All to approve of hostilities against Saddam Hussein. The legislative coalition all but guarantees that when the measure comes to the Senate floor it will pass.
In a recent paper, the Cato Institute declares,
“No Constitutional principle is more important than congressional control over the decision to go to war.” As James Madison put it in 1793: “In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature and not the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers, the trust and temptation would be too much for any one man.”
The document which emerged from the Constitutional Convention vests the bulk of the powers associated with military action with Congress. In his 1973 book “The Imperial Presidency,” historian Arthur M.Schlesinger, Jr. noted that,
“The erosion of Congress’s control of the war power over the course of the 20th century was as much a matter of congressional acquiescence as of presidential usurpation.”
The Vietnam War shows us how an executive wanting to go to war can achieve his goal.
In August 1964, the U.S. entered the Vietnam War after reports of an “unprovoked” attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. But the reports were false and President Lyndon Johnson knew it. In August 1964, the USS Maddox destroyer was in the Gulf of Tonkin along the North Vietnamese coast. On August 2, torpedo boats, defending the coast, began attacking. The attack, however, was the result of US provocation.
Two days later, on August 4, the Johnson Administration began claiming additional attacks. In response Congress passed a resolution almost unanimously allowing the federal government “to take all necessary means to protect U.S. forces in Vietnam.”
The truth finally came out. In the early 2000s, at least 200 documents were declassified and released by the National Security Agency. No attack had taken place on Aug. 4. This lie jump-started a war that cost 58, 220 American lives. It ended much as the conflict in Afghanistan is ending now.
It is time for Congress to reassert its power with regard to taking our country to war.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have involved us in needless and costly conflicts. The scenes from Afghanistan at the present time are scenes we have seen before—-but do not want to see again. Only our adversaries are happy with these developments.
During the Vietnam War, I was working in the U.S. Senate.
Because I believed what our government was telling us about the war, I was a strong supporter. I traveled around the country debating critics of the war. Some of these critics were wrong. I remember Historian Howard Zinn claiming in a debate in Boston that the Viet Cong were not really Communists at all. Other critics of the war with whom I debated such as the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, then the chaplain at Yale, said neither side in Vietnam was worthy of our support. In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have taken a much different position.
Going to war should be a last resort. And, unless we are suddenly under attack, Congress should make the decision after carefully considering all possible ramifications. The same is true of hasty decisions to suddenly withdraw our troops with little consideration of the consequences to those who have relied upon us and believed in our commitments to them. These, sadly, are not our finest moments.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.
Brownfeld is the recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, and he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.