From Afghanistan to Ukraine: Strategy, Tactics, & Biden’s Foreign Policy

(This post is also available as a podcast episode.)

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone but diehard partisans say that President Biden has been a strong president.

His promise to bring America together has failed. His unrealistic prediction that Republicans would snap out of it once the election evicted President Trump from the White House has not manifested. His presidential press conferences, rare as they may be, are the most worrying of my lifetime, save only those of his predecessor. Although the American Rescue Plan protected a fragile recovery, it was fair for critics to worry about the long-term effects on prices and productivity, and even those critics may have underpredicted inflation, now at a 40-year-high of 7.9%. Meanwhile, his Build Back Better budget plan never got through Congress — a Congress his party controls.

For these and several other reasons, I think Republicans are virtually assured of a House takeover this November (perhaps the Senate as well), and Biden’s inability to stop it will make him look even weaker. His greatest singular accomplishment to his party and our country remains that he won an election his opponent was determined to steal, a victory that gave his party control of the executive and legislative branches and our democracy control of itself. Since then, however, victories for this overmatched chief executive have been few and far between, and he should do us all a favor and not run again in 2024.

When his party loses control of Congress in January, his domestic agenda will be even more ineffectual, making his foreign policy all the more critical when either he runs for re-election or the Democrats scramble to replace him. For that reason, and with the Ukrainian conflict now in its second month, I want to consider Biden’s foreign policy through the lens of the two primary crises he’s faced: the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing Ukrainian conflict.

It’s been a mixed bag. Although I actually agree with Biden’s strategy in Afghanistan, his tactics were abysmal. Then, in Ukraine, it was the strategy that was laughable but the tactics laudable.

Here’s what I mean.

We’ll start with Afghanistan. The US withdrawal was difficult to watch. Terrified civilians fell from planes. Medieval monsters rode into Kabul. The Afghan people are in a worse place today than they had been during the height of US military presence in their country. The execution of the withdrawal was abominable, and for President Biden to call it an “extraordinary success” is not only laughable, it’s offensive. None of the above should be disputed.

The cause of this devastating downturn, however, is not Joe Biden.

Let’s work backwards. Last year, from May 1 through August, the US gradually withdrew its military from Afghanistan. Like Emperor Honorius told Britannia in 411 CE during Rome’s broader withdrawal from the empire’s extremes, the US, another receding empire, told native civilians to look to their own defense. And, just like in Britannia, the native defense against barbaric invaders went poorly. After nearly two decades of support from the West, the Afghan military numbered in the well-equipped hundreds of thousands — considerably more than the Taliban aggressors — but they were wildly ineffective in the defense of their country, and their equipment became the latest addition to the Taliban’s military.

Why did withdrawal begin on May 1? That was a date agreed upon 15 months earlier by the Taliban and the previous US President. The Doha Agreement, signed by the Trump Administration and Taliban in Doha, Qatar in February 2020, promised that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to not attack American soldiers in the meantime. Once inaugurated in January, the Biden Administration determined it would need more time and riskily pushed back the full withdrawal target to September, although it did commit to beginning the withdrawal on May 1.

The period between Doha and last August’s chaos was one of relative peace. After a war that killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers, U.S. fatalities in the country flatlined in the wake of the treaty: 4 in post-treaty 2020 and none in pre-August 2021. (Worth noting is that the Taliban compensated by increasing attacks on Afghan targets.) By that metric alone, the Trump Administration’s treaty was a success.

The rub, of course, is that the Taliban had called off its attacks against Americans with the promise of withdrawal in mind. If Biden pushed back withdrawal, which so many of his detractors wanted him to do, the treaty was over. The same would have been true if Trump — who claims he wouldn’t have screwed it up despite A) it being his treaty, B) it being his agreed upon date, and C) him having had 11 more months in his presidency to have done it better — had been re-elected. (Fact check: he wasn’t.)

Under an extended presence, the treaty was off. We’d have thrown more money at this impossible quagmire, and for our troubles we’d have welcomed home more coffins draped in American flags. And guess what — that would have been unpopular, too. Biden was in an unmanageable situation. The die had been cast by Trump back when Biden was slugging it out with Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Trump and Biden’s strategy was sound. It was time to get out.

But the tactics! The tactics were terrible. The State, Defense, and Intelligence departments of both presidents are responsible for the logistics of the tragic withdrawal. They should have taken better care to streamline the visa process for refugees and collaborators who rightfully feared for their lives upon a Taliban takeover. They should have had enough troops stationed to safely and calmly withdraw all non-combat personnel. It seems only in the weeks before final withdrawal had there been any urgency, as if American intelligence — granted, at times an oxymoronic pairing of words — truly thought there was no chance events could unfold exactly as they did.

That urgency came too late. The process should have been a program started in President Trump’s final year, beginning the day after Doha. Since Trump predictably failed at empathy and focusing on something for longer than a minute, President Biden should have come in and done all he could much earlier in 2021 to make up for lost time. If the appropriate investments were made and everything was properly prepared, the worst case scenario was a successful Afghan defense of their country, which would have merely meant that a few more State and Defense dollars were wasted on a problem that was about to end.

And yet, the strategy was correct. All considered, there is no compelling evidence that another six months, one year, five years, or 20 years of American presence and troop-training in Afghanistan would have made any difference. Meanwhile, the U.S. would have continued to fund a military presence with the potential for American casualties in a forever war. Americans of all political stripes didn’t want to be there; surveys said that overwhelmingly. Is it fair to say those who wanted to remove US troops from the country never quite thought through the ramifications of American withdrawal? For those who were surprised by the deadly withdrawal and rapid Taliban takeover, I would say yes. 

But we couldn’t protect Afghanistan forever, and for as long as we did we racked up devastatingly long bills of lives and treasure. We should instead learn the lessons from our imperialist predecessors. We can’t spread our values everywhere. We can’t instill democracy everywhere. We have the difficult situation of having an abundance of wealth and liberalism (for now), and yet the export of the excess is neither possible nor our responsibility, at least not until a people are able to pursue it for themselves. Afghans were unable to do so. We failed. So did they. It’s a shame.

But it’s not Biden’s fault. For blame, we should look even further back. Look to Trump. Look to Obama. And most of all, look to the architects of the invasion and the generals who told us an uncontrollable mountainous region that has thwarted invaders since Alexander the Great could be controlled by the latest of a long line of exceptional nations. If there was a bad strategy, it was the one that got the US into the mess, not the one that got us out.

Now Ukraine. There, the Biden Administration’s myopic strategy did little to stave off Russia’s aggression. Yet, once Russia chose the aggressive path, Biden’s tactics, this time, have actually been sound.

To be fair, we should be careful to separate President Biden’s Ukraine policy from President Obama’s. It’s true that Obama could have done more when Russia invaded Crimea, and of course Joe Biden was Obama’s Vice President. Still, it’s rather unfair to hold accountable the person whose only Constitutional duties are to break Senate ties and have a heartbeat.

Therefore, when considering Biden’s approach to Ukraine, let’s isolate US policy starting on January 20th, 2021.

One relevant, short-sighted action taken by his administration was lifting sanctions on the nearly operational Nord Stream 2 pipeline. To best understand the possible impacts of Nord Stream 2, let’s first look at Nord Stream 1, the longest sub-sea pipeline in the world.

Shout-out to the BBC for the above image (and for Doctor Who).

Operational since 2011, it provides about half of Germany’s natural gas, and natural gas is Germany’s most common energy source. For environmental and political reasons, the country has been winding down its reliance on coal and nuclear power, and it’s using cheap Russian gas to make up the difference. In short, there is considerable German reliance on the pipeline.

Like Nord Stream 1, Nord Stream 2, built from 2018 to 2021 but not yet in operation, was largely financed by a mostly state-owned Russian energy corporation called Gazprom. Gazprom owns the majority of Nord Stream AG, the Russia-based consortium that constructed and operates Nord Stream 1. Gazprom also owns all of Nord Stream 2 AG, which handles the second pipeline. The second pipeline could have doubled the amount of natural gas pumped from Russia to Germany, with even more dollars heading in the other direction.

With Germany as the engine of the European Union and the mainland’s most important political and military player, many worried what German reliance on Russian gas could do to Russia’s power over the rest of Europe. Indeed, even during the current crisis, German-based E.ON, the European utility giant that distributes the gas flowing from Nord Stream 1 to Germany and other European nations, hasn’t shut down the pipeline, which means European money for Russian energy continues despite so many other sanctions. If Germany could sever Nord Stream 1, it probably would. The fact that it hasn’t probably means it can’t.

This situation is the kind of leverage for which Putin had hoped. Let’s remember why Putin invaded Ukraine in the first place. As I discussed two weeks ago when comparing Putin to Peter the Great and Adolf Hitler, Putin’s broad aspiration is to raise Russia’s prominence alongside that of Western powers. Further, it is Russia’s fear of NATO encroachment that, Putin says, prompted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before Ukraine could join NATO.

A Germany dependent on Russia would be much less likely to push for NATO expansion out of fear of antagonizing its energy source. It would also be much less likely to sanction Russia were Putin to get aggressive on its western front.

Nord Stream 2 would have upped the presence of, and Europe’s reliance on, Russia’s gas, and it could therefore have given Putin even more leverage over Germany and the EU. Even just threatening to cut off access to Nord Stream 1 has been used by Putin as leverage. Further, were Nord Stream 2 to ramp up European dependency on Russia and then were a hot war ever to break out between the two sides, Russia could cut off the energy for a considerable strategic advantage. No one should rule out that scenario as a long-term Putinian machination.

Here’s where US foreign policy comes in. Far-thinking foreign policy would consider all of the above and take action before it was too late. The last Congress, together with the Trump Administration, recognized the ramifications of Nord Stream 2. Over Germany’s objections (both Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German people supported the pipeline’s cheap gas), the US sanctioned firms that funded its construction, including Nord Stream AG. Construction on the pipeline stopped, only to resume after Biden won the election, a sign that the sanctioned firms were awaiting those election results, waiting for the political winds to shift. True enough, a few months into office, Biden waived the sanctions on Nord Stream AG, explaining the controversial action as an effort to renew cooperation with Germany after Trump’s rhetoric widened the Atlantic. Senator Ted Cruz and his fellow Republicans tried to bring back sanctions on the pipeline this past December, but despite a few crossover votes they couldn’t advance the bill out of the Democratic-controlled Senate, a body that certainly takes it cues from President Biden.

These series of steps, in addition to soft reactions to Putin’s past invasions, likely emboldened him. With both Germany and the US removing roadblocks to Nord Stream 2, it appeared Putin’s larger scheme — that of a Germany and Europe more dependent on Russia — was coming to fruition.

Meanwhile, even before that dependency manifested, Putin saw an opportunity. If these titans of NATO were being this permissive, what else would they permit?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clarified the answer. It’s here where Biden’s tactics have tried to salvage his bad strategy.

It started in January, with Biden giving frank updates about the looming conflict. He shared American intelligence of what was to come, which was smart for two reasons. First, it helped frame Putin’s naked aggression before Putin himself could spin it, which helped the world see the invasion for what it was without two competing, distracting narratives slowing international condemnation and response. Second, it also showed the American people we should brace for the worst in Ukraine — a deadly, prolonged conflict targeting an innocent people. This was quite unlike Afghanistan, where Biden either hid the possibility of a total Afghan collapse or he was ignorant of its likelihood, neither of which we want from our commander-in-chief. President Biden learned from his mistake.

And then there’s been the strong international cooperation that has come from Russia’s invasion. NATO has tolerated the invasion insofar as it hasn’t put boots on the ground or tried to establish a No Fly Zone, both out of fear of converting this isolated conflict into a global one, but that doesn’t mean the US and other Western nations have sat idly by, either.

President Biden, new German Chancellor Olaf Sholz, and other leaders have led a remarkably unified effort. There has been a rapid arming of the Ukrainian people (although President Zelensky, understandably, will always want more). In an effort to convince Russia to change course, record-breaking international sanctions have been placed on the country. Russia’s companies are now in the midst of an exodus, with one estimate saying 150 companies have withdrawn from the country and another 180 have “suspended operations.” Factories have closed, too. Unemployment will continue to climb.

The international community has denied the Russian central bank access to over a hundred billion dollars of its foreign serves, access which could have helped prop up the Russian economy, the war effort, and the value of the ruble. Without that access, and with all the aforementioned sanctions, the ruble has lost about a third of its value, lowering its rate against the US dollar to just one cent. To combat inflation, the Russian central bank has raised interest rates to 20%, the kind of number that begs for further recession in the coming months. Oxford Economics predicts a 7% contraction of the Russian economy, far worse than the size of the American contraction during the height of the Great Recession, which, at 4.3%, was itself our largest economic contraction since World War II. There are now fears that Russia won’t be able to make an upcoming $2.2 billion payment to service its foreign debt, which could badly damage Russian credit.

Sanctions have also tightly squeezed the oligarchs whose support props up Putin. At the onset of sanctions, Russian billionaires lost $39 billion. Russia is also spending billions on the war, and sanctions will make it difficult to prolong that burn rate. All considered, Putin will either face revolution, or he’ll need to change course in order to stave revolution off.

On top of all that, Germany, signaling an overdue shift, finally halted the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The White House banned Russian oil, gas, and coal imports. So have the UK and Australia. Germany has also committed to more defense and NATO spending to deter future Russian aggressions. Whereas President Trump pushed to let Russia back into the G8, President Biden has recently called for its expulsion out of the G20. If Russia again wants a seat at those economic circles, it must change.

Concomitant to these tactical successes, the Ukrainian people continue to bravely hold out, creating the real possibility that Putin will be stuck in a briar patch even thornier than what the US found itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is, unless Russia withdraws.

Whether Russia withdraws any time soon is anyone’s guess. Indeed, the tactical successes and Ukrainian defense have so thoroughly humiliated Putin that he may seek to rachet up the aggression, just to save a bit of face. At some point, the next tactic from Biden and the West must be to offer a face-saving concession, just so Putin can withdraw to feel the relief of lifted sanctions while also claiming a sort of victory.

It’s hard to say that the belated successful tactics in Ukraine absolve the strategic errors in eastern Europe. Just as with Afghanistan, surely partisans will play up whichever makes their side look better. Last August, Democrats played up a president finally getting us out of Afghanistan while Republicans focused on the chaotic withdrawal. Moving forward, Democrats will highlight renewed international cooperation while Republicans will argue we never should have gotten to this point in the first place.

What’s beyond dispute is that no matter the long-term success of the tactics, the lives that have been and will continue to be lost in Ukraine cannot be brought back, and the millions displaced face considerable hardships moving forward.

And yet, Putin catalyzed the kind of Western cooperation not seen since the end of the Cold War. President Trump once called NATO “obsolete.” (He later backtracked after his handlers likely pointed him in the right direction, explaining, “I said it was obsolete! It is no longer obsolete.” See? It was past tense. No big deal.) Now, however, NATO feels more united and more relevant than it has in decades, and Putin knows it.

And it’s not just Putin that knows it. I think what’s lost in the analysis of these intense sanctions is that they send a message to future despots who may consider acting similarly. In fact, it’s this reasoning that’s at the core of why earlier sanctions could have staved off this invasion from happening in the first place. Although it’s reasonable to predict that sanctions may not actually get Russia to withdraw because Putin may be too invested to do an about-face, these sanctions are as much disincentives to future warmongers as they are to current ones. If you behave badly, there will be consequences.

If the legacy of this invasion is a stronger NATO under renewed US leadership coupled with more nervous tyrants throughout the globe, Biden was both lucky and good enough to back into that particular parking spot. Although he will have earned it, he’d have only earned it through cleaning up a mess he helped create. Ironically, that’s the opposite of what happened in Afghanistan, when he had to clean the mess left by others, only he did it in a tremendously embarrassing way.

Maybe one of these days, he’ll have both good strategy and good tactics, but I doubt it.

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