The messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan isn’t causing issues just for the Biden administration. As they jockey for influence and favor with Republican voters, 2024 presidential hopefuls are struggling to find the right message.
It’s an easier task for some more than others.
Former President Donald Trump is unsurprisingly unequivocal. Trump says the withdrawal would have been conducted with far greater care under his leadership. At the same time, he appears to believe that America’s Afghan allies should have been abandoned. Speaking to Newsmax TV this week, Trump declared that Biden’s withdrawal was the greatest embarrassment in American history, a security risk to the American homeland, and a betrayal of Americans left behind. Perhaps hedging against the possibility some of the evacuated Afghans might turn out to be Taliban-linked extremists, Trump warned “they didn’t vet the [Afghan evacuees]. They didn’t vet any of these people coming out. They’re vetting them now [even though] they’re already out!” During the evacuation, Trump’s political action committee tweeted a photo of a US cargo plane crowded with Afghans, commenting, “This plane should have been full of Americans. America First!”
While Trump was the one who made the original agreement which saw the US withdraw from Afghanistan, ironically, he faces less difficulty than other Republicans on this issue. The former president is deeply disliked by many party elites, including Republicans in Congress, but those Republicans are reluctant to challenge a figure who remains deeply popular with many GOP voters. And Trump’s political character allows him to get away with a lot. He can play both sides of this issue – simultaneously slamming Biden with cutting adverts that ignore his own record, and appearing to call for America’s Afghan allies to be left behind – because voters expect nothing else from him.
Contrast this with the approach taken by the Republican seen as most likely to challenge Joe Biden should Trump decide to remain in Florida, Ron DeSantis.
The Harvard law school graduate turned Congressman turned Florida Governor has charted a clever path between the pro-Trump and Trump-skeptical wings of the Republican Party. Yet while DeSantis has staked his political reputation on a restriction-lax approach to the coronavirus pandemic, he has been more cautious on Afghanistan. Like other Republicans, DeSantis has slammed Biden’s leadership. But he has been notably reluctant to explain what he would have actually done differently.
Instead, DeSantis has lamented, “To just leave all those Americans basically fending for themselves behind enemy lines, gifting billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to terrorist groups — I think the whole Afghanistan thing, we needed to find a way to kind of dial that down, and I’m in favor of that generally. But, man, there’s a way to do it, and there’s a way to say we just don’t care what’s going on.”
This somewhat confused caution reflects a party caught between Biden’s withdrawal, Trump’s negotiation of that withdrawal, and a belief by many Republicans in Congress that the US should have retained its 2,500-strong military presence in Afghanistan. Oh, and a party base that deeply dislikes Biden, but also favored the withdrawal which Trump agreed and Biden effected!
DeSantis, however, has the excuse of focusing on Florida.
Other prospective 2024 candidates don’t have it so easy. Most obvious among this number is Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. After all, Pompeo negotiated the agreement which saw the Taliban pledge to abandon al Qaeda in return for America’s departure. While Pompeo can credibly argue that he was following Trump’s orders to reach an agreement with the Taliban, his 2024 GOP primary challengers are likely to tie him to the withdrawal. Pompeo is meeting with conservative groups and donors across the nation, and making frequent TV appearances. But as the Taliban returns to its totalitarian roots and offers a governing seat to al Qaeda allies, Pompeo finds himself caught between loyalty to Trump (a prerequisite to earn favor from Trump’s supporters), criticizing Biden, and advancing his more hawkish credentials.
An example of the complex challenge he faces came in a showdown this week between Pompeo and fellow hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham. Pompeo was asked by conservative radio host Lisa Boothe to respond to Graham’s remarks to the BBC that the US military would have to return to Afghanistan to confront terrorist threats. Pompeo was careful, saying, “I pray Lindsey is wrong… He had more confidence in the Ghani government than I ever could muster….” Notice the shift to Ghani and away from the question of whether America’s counter-terrorism needs would require us to return to Afghanistan.
Still, Pompeo can at least be pleased he’s not in Senator Ted Cruz’s position.
Attempting to assail Biden over the Taliban’s return to power, Cruz tweeted a now-debunked video purporting to show the Taliban hanging a man from a helicopter. Cruz deleted the tweet but the incident will have done nothing to alleviate the perception that his chance came and went in 2016.
That leaves the candidate most favored by the GOP establishment: Trump’s former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley. Another more hawkish voice, Haley left the Trump administration before it reached the withdrawal agreement. Taking advantage of her greater political separation from that agreement, Haley has centered her attacks on Biden. Writing in the Washington Post, Haley lamented the failure to evacuate all Americans and US allies. She called on Biden not to recognize the Taliban regime now in power. But once again reflecting his enduring influence, Haley has been careful not to criticize Trump.
Senator Rand Paul is perhaps best placed on Afghanistan: he was always opposed to the US presence in that country. That said, Paul likely lacks the cross-party appeal to win the nomination.
How this plays out in 2024 will depend much on what the Taliban does now. If it facilitates a resurgence of al Qaeda, DeSantis would seem best placed to benefit. If the Taliban is seen to prevent a resurgent terrorist threat, Afghanistan will likely fade as a intra-GOP conflict point. But 20 years later, for a party that in 2002 won control of Congress on the back of President Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, the future remains deeply uncertain.
Tom Rogan is a national security columnist for the Washington Examiner