Liz Cheney Said The Quiet Part Out Loud 

Some of the focus on the messiness of our exit was clearly driven by those who don’t want to see troops leave Afghanistan at all.

U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) listens during the opening hearing of the U.S. House (Select) Committee investigating the January 6 attack. (Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

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As U.S. troops beat a frenetic retreat from Afghanistan critics piled on President Joe Biden for leaving interpreters and others who helped American forces behind to face violent reprisals at the hands of the fundamentalist Taliban. While the indelible images of people desperately clinging to departing planes in Kabul exposed major missteps by U.S. officials, some of the focus on the messiness of our exit was clearly driven by those who don’t want to see troops leave Afghanistan at all. One of the more revealing comments came from the daughter of an architect of the nearly two decade long war. 

In a CBS News interview on Monday where she called Biden’s decision to withdraw troops “catastrophic” and “disgraceful” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) echoed some of the arguments her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, made in 2001 as he advocated for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The younger Cheney suggested the country would become a haven for “terrorist organizations” and lead to a “dangerous new phase in the War on Terror” that her father helped begin. 

“President Biden never should have withdrawn forces,” she said.

CBS News’ Anthony Mason asked the congresswoman the obvious question, almost incredulously.

“Are you saying that we should have a permanent presence in Afghanistan?”

“Our security requires that we have sufficient forces to work with the Afghans … to prevent the establishment of safe havens,” Cheney replied. 

She compared her vision to the longstanding U.S. military presence in Korea and Germany. Ultimately, Cheney suggested Biden should leave up to 3,500 troops. That’s more than the approximately 2,500 that remained in the country when Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, began the withdrawal last year. 

Cheney served with her father in the administration of President George W. Bush during the first few years of the war and worked on their re-election campaign. Her pedigree made her a particularly compelling example of how some are using the terrifying scenes of the withdrawal from Kabul to argue for keeping troops on the ground. On Sunday’s episode of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter and “The New Yorker” columnist Susan Glasser discussed how the political debate around the exit included “conflating” criticism of the problems in recent days with the policies of the past twenty years. Indeed, Cheney wasn’t the only one who used concerns about the messy withdrawal to start a case for continuing the war. 

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement on Sunday that declared “the frantic evacuation of Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul is a shameful failure of American leadership.” After excoriating Biden’s administration for the “botched” withdrawal, McConnell argued for a continued presence on the ground. Like Cheney, McConnell supported the war in its early days

“It did not have to happen this way. The United States had the capacity to avoid this disaster. We still have the capacity to dampen its effects, but without a presence on the ground or local partners, defending the homeland from a resurgent al Qaeda will be far more difficult,” McConnell said. 

Of course, Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the Americans and vulnerable Afghans making the mad dash out of Kabul. The hectic and dangerous departure were squarely the result of U.S. policy decisions. In 2020, Trump made a deal with the Taliban to leave this year without protections for Afghans or the participation of that country’s American-backed government. Biden largely stuck to Trump’s agreement. The current administration waited until last month to expand efforts for allies and other vulnerable Afghans to secure special visas to leave while underestimating the speed with which the Taliban would retake the country. Biden even specifically promised “there's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy.” He was very wrong.

These missteps were serious and they have already had bloody consequences. At least eight Afghans were killed in violence at Kabul’s airport on Monday. Potential refugees are trapped in bureaucratic limbo and fearing execution at the hands of the Taliban. 

Biden will — and should —face questions about the poor planning. But the issue of whether the evacuation was properly secured and executed is entirely separate from whether the war in Afghanistan should end. But some are clearly mixing this valid critique with a call to continue the conflict, a position that was opposed by a majority of Americans prior to the withdrawal controversy.

In a speech from the White House Monday evening, Biden announced that he would be deploying 6,000 troops to the country “for the purpose of assisting in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of Afghanistan.” The president also attempted to offer an explanation for the chaos of the withdrawal. 

“Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” Biden said. “And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”

Time will tell whether Biden’s efforts to deflect blame for the tragically flawed exit will stand up to scrutiny. But as we judge the withdrawal, it’s important to remember the full toll of the conflict. Over 150,000 people are estimated to have died in Afghanistan including more than 40,000 civilians and over 6,000 U.S. service members and contractors. More than 20,000 American service members were wounded during the almost twenty years of the war. Delaying withdrawal would have added to these numbers.

Our exit from Afghanistan was unquestionably ugly, but nothing about this brutal war has gone according to plan. As we debate the debacle of the past few days, it’s important not to forget the problems of the past two decades.