United States President Joe Biden concludes his April 16, 2021, Afghanistan speech in this way:
…it’s the right decision for our people. The right one for our brave service members who have risked their lives serving our nation. And it’s the right one for America.
This 19-minute speech consisted of 71 paragraphs delivered in the East Room. It failed to address directly the crises that have outraged so many in the United States and the world. They are wondering, how on earth did these crises happen? How is it that the Taliban so quickly captured the capital city of Kabul? How is it that tens of thousands of Afghans are in a dire scramble seeking evacuation, even closing the Kabul International Civilian Airport? How is it that the evacuation efforts at Kabul Military Airport have been stymied with utter chaos?
The agreement for the US to depart and end “the forever war” was made between former President Donald Trump (personally) and the Taliban in February, 2020. Trump claimed to have had good relationships with the reformed Taliban.
One month previously, Biden declared this would not be another Saigon, but some say it is 10 times worse.
Did Biden’s speech help? Was it persuasive? No, No!
To evaluate the effectiveness of a speech, one first needs to identify the goals.
This was not a routine speech.
This was not a “let me bring you up to date" speech.
Instead this was a crisis management speech.
What were the crises?
The crisis was not pulling out the troops to end “a forever war.”
The crisis was not that the Taliban would eventually take over.”
The crises were:
Chaos and desperation at the Kabul International Airport where there were tens of thousands trying to get out of Afghanistan: some even clinging to the undercarriage of the planes. Some falling from the planes. Some loaded in the plane to such an extent that the pilots would refuse to fly.
Chaos at the military side of the Kabul Airport where the evacuation of Americans was stymied.
Third, the Taliban swiftly taking over the capital city of Kabul, weeks, maybe months before the predictions.
So, one would think that the goals of the speech would be to explain and allay the concerns arising out of these three crises.
What is a Crisis?
A crisis usually has the following traits:
High stakes, including the need to communicate to resolve a tense situation.
Just as crisis managers don’t know what the players will do next, crisis managers may have no idea how a crisis will unfold.
Heightened emotions. In tense situations, negative emotions tend to run high. It’s common for people to lash out and escalate the situation.
Multiple parties and teams. Crisis negotiations are often complex, requiring the participation of many different groups and teams.
What is Crisis Management?
1. Prepare for crisis. In pulling out troops and ending the so called twenty year “forever war” the US should have prepared for crisis. They should have predicted that there would be airport chaos and evacuation desperation. They had over a year to do so since former President Trump signed the agreement with the Taliban. They should have prepared for a quick take over by the Taliban since the Taliban had been planning this for months.
2. Establish ground rules. The US should have worked with the Taliban and the Afghan government to set basic ground rules for the evacuation and the take over. There needed to be substantive, honest, diligent talks. Ground rules establish a foundation for trust, and they also give one room to say no to extreme demands. Those involved in a crisis become more willing to accept a denial of their requests when they believe they are being treated ethically.
3. Confront emotions head on. During a crisis, emotions must be confronted and managed. Listening becomes important with the goal of identifying their primary underlying problem or motivation. Many believe that the Taliban have changed a bit and want to be seen as legitimate leaders of Afghanistan.
4. Don’t rush the process. During a crisis, there is a tendency to rush the process. Most of the time this is not a good idea. Emotions de-escalate over time, so proceed slowly and confidently. Working methodically through a heated situation is usually the best approach.
5. Strengthen the relationship. Take the approach: “We’re in this together.” One is trying to create the kind of bond that will allow the parties to find a solution to the crisis together. Remember, their problem is your problem, so focus on collaborating on an agreement that satisfies you all of the parties.
President Biden’s Speech
The White House Briefing Room entitled this speech as “Remarks by President Biden on Afghanistan.”
The use of the term “remarks” is notable. A remark is defined as “to say something as a comment or mention; expressions of opinion.”
Surely this term does not capture the crises that seem to outrage many.
His first paragraph also does not capture the crises.
I want to speak today to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan: the developments that have taken place in the last week
It is only in paragraph 20 when Biden finally take note of the crises.
But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.
It takes until paragraph 35 before Biden acknowledges the painful scenes of the crises.
I also want to acknowledge how painful this is to so many of us. The scenes we’re seeing in Afghanistan, they’re gut-wrenching, particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers, for anyone who has spent time on the ground working to support the Afghan people.
In paragraph 44, Biden lays out the plan of action:
Now, let me lay out the current mission in Afghanistan. I was asked to authorize — and I did — 6,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan 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.
In paragraph 52, Biden gives a weak explanation as to how the crisis happened:
I know that there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghans — civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier — still hopeful for their country. And part of it was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, “a crisis of confidence.”
In paragraph 62, Biden attempts to express his feelings which is good during a crisis. He then negates those feelings by beginning the second sentence with the conjunction “but.”
I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision
Ending “the Forever War” in Afghanistan
The President’s 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th paragraphs give a history of our involvement including the ultimate goal:
Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.
This is a good reminder, but 2/3 of Americans already agree and these paragraphs do not confront the crises at hand.
In paragraph 13, he reminds the listeners of what he inherited:
When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 — just a little over three months after I took office.
A good reminder that most Americans agree.
…but if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.
Again, most Americans agree. Many remember that Great Britain got mired in Afghanistan in the 19th century. The Soviet Union was mired there also for ten years and this may have contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Americans appreciate the quality: The buck stops here. In paragraph 18, Biden exudes this characteristic:
I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.
I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.
I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another President of the United States — yet another one — a fifth one.
Again, Americans usually admire this trait.
In Paragraph 8, he reminds the listeners that he has been consistent:
I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building. That’s why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was Vice President.
Political consistency is an admirable trait and most appreciate this reminder.
In paragraph 66, Biden emphasizes his commitment:
I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for President that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. And while it’s been hard and messy — and yes, far from perfect — I’ve honored that commitment.
So, in conclusion, Biden’s Afghanistan speech was unpersuasive. He should have recognized this as a crisis and that this is no time to make mere “remarks.” He should have followed crisis management advice,
Unnecessarily, he devoted much of the speech sounding themes to which most Americans already agreed.
His speech was not responsive to the crises answering the questions: How did this happen? How was he so wrong in the recent past? How did he say it would not be another Vietnam when many now say it is 10 times worse.
Former Army Ranger, Staff Sgt Tom Amenta (retired) may have put it best on CNN. “My blood is raging. It is infuriating. The administration owes an honest answer.”
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