Joe Biden and Naftali Bennett made plans to discuss a range of issues that are important to America’s national security interests on Thursday. Issues like Iran's nuclear ambitions, China's growing involvement in the Middle East and the stability of U.S. allied governments in the region. They were also planning to talk about the COVID pandemic, which both of their countries are currently fighting with an aggressive vaccination campaign.
But then, shortly before their scheduled meeting time, news came in of a horrible terror attack in Afghanistan. Dozens of deaths, among them – for the first time in more than a year – U.S. soldiers. Within seconds, it was clear to everyone following along in Israel and Washington that the first meeting between Biden and Bennett would likely be delayed – and perhaps even cancelled altogether. The president was now dealing with a national crisis.
The pictures from Kabul will intensify the criticism leveled against Biden in the United States over how his administration has handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Botched, embarrassing, shameful – those are some of the gentler words that have been used to describe the evolving situation on the ground. It will only get worse for the president now that American lives have been lost.
The administration doesn’t have good answers in the face of this criticism; it keeps highlighting how many people it has already evacuated from Afghanistan, only to be reminded of the ever-growing number still trying desperately to get out. For every heartwarming story of a family that has made it to safety, there are ten infuriating accounts of abandoned allies, left behind with no protection.
But in the long run, the tragedy that took place on Thursday, and the minor and coincidental Israeli angle of it, proves why America’s decision to leave Afghanistan is inevitable.
Most Americans have supported withdrawing from the central Asian country for years, exactly because of the sequence of events that the whole world just witnessed. America has been fighting in Afghanistan for two decades now, and has lost more than 2,300 soldiers there. The mission it set out to achieve - creating a stable, independent, democratic Afghan government, has been out of reach for years, and was probably never truly possible in the first place.
Over time, the U.S. commitment to maintaining a corrupt and unpopular government in Kabul came at the expense of other, more urgent priorities. That’s why Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden all wanted to end the American presence in Afghanistan, and gradually took soldiers out of the country.
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Biden is completing that move in a painful, and in the eyes of many, shameful manner. He has other important issues that require his attention. It’s not just the foreign policy topics that he was planning to discuss with Bennett, before their meeting was torpedoed by a suicide bomber outside Hamid Karzai International Airport. Later on Thursday, Biden was supposed to meet with governors of several U.S. states to talk about domestic priorities, which for his administration are even more pressing and important.
Biden promised to overcome the pandemic, vaccinate America against future variants, revive the economy, send children back to school safely and improve the country’s crumbling infrastructure. He has made significant progress in achieving many of these ambitious goals, but there is much more to be done. The delta variant is still spreading all over the United States, and in large parts of the country, there is politically driven resistance to the vaccine – a sad reality that is bolstering the virus. Biden recently won a major victory in the Senate with the passage of his infrastructure package, but is now facing some opposition from inside his own party over the next steps in his legislative agenda.
Instead of focusing on these challenges – as well as on the ones that involve foreign policy and relationships with other world leaders – on Thursday he was, like his predecessors, sucked again into the painful, never-ending tragedy of Afghanistan. This, at the end of the day, is why he is determined to get out. This is why the two previous administrations also wanted to end America’s involvement in the country.
As for Israel and Bennett, stepping aside and telling Biden’s staff that the Israeli prime minister will patiently wait for their directives, was the smart and responsible thing to do. Iran’s nuclear program and China’s Middle East strategy are more important to America in the long run than Afghanistan. But right now, the Kabul airport is still Biden’s most urgent and painful problem.