WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell predicted it.
But Rand Paul says he’s been proven right as well.
The Taliban’s breakneck takeover of Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s pullout of U.S. forces has both Kentucky senators arguing their polar opposite positions have been validated.
McConnell, who has warned for years that a hasty abandonment of Afghanistan would precipitate a security crisis, has largely seen his immediate predictions come true, as Americans and their Afghan allies struggle to flee a country in chaos.
Paul, who has contested for just as long that the U.S. had no reason to be in Afghanistan for so long, said the current tragedy could’ve been avoided if prior administrations had heeded his repeated warnings to bring troops home. Once America had avenged the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks with airstrikes on the Taliban, the mission had been accomplished, according to Paul.
They can’t both be right, and some foreign policy analysts contend neither of their arguments is airtight.
“They were both wrong,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Rand Paul basically holds the same position as the Biden administration. An objective viewer would say that was pretty wrong because it didn’t happen the way we thought.”
Roggio added, “McConnell’s wrong because the call to keep U.S. troops there was just staving off the inevitable if they stayed on the same path. Keeping the forces -- without changing the way we did things -- wouldn’t have changed the ultimate outcome. It would’ve just delayed it.”
Which is to say, finding the right way out of a long war is historically messier than getting into one.
Still, the McConnell and Paul positions are emblematic of the wider rupture inside the Republican Party between the more traditional interventionist mindset and the ascendant anti-war ethos that was normalized by the presidency of Donald Trump, who put in motion the departure from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of American involvement.
“Now the same people who still defend the Iraq War and who also wanted to stay in Afghanistan forever are some of the loudest voices criticizing the Taliban retaking control of that country,” wrote Paul on his new Liberty Tree website. “If after 20 years of preparing Afghanistan to govern itself, it immediately bends to extremists the moment we leave, what did hawks think we were going to accomplish over another decade -- or ever? Was two decades not enough time?”
Whereas Paul’s position dogged him in his 2016 run for president for looking weak and fringe inside the GOP, he’s now much more in step with most Americans than McConnell. A Morning Consult poll conducted over the weekend as events in Afghanistan were unraveling found that just 37% disapproved of the withdrawal.
“He is in the minority, unfortunately, in the Republican Party in Washington, but the Republican base ...has leaned and gone very hard against the war in the last several years,” said Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a senior adviser at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which opposes an overly militarized foreign policy. “Rand Paul speaks for the base of conservatives throughout the country.”
McConnell has spent this week on a media tour, lamenting the “utter disgrace” of America’s exit and lambasting the Biden administration for lacking a plan to extricate an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens still on the ground there.
But the GOP leader has been less precise about what to do next.
Asked multiple times if he believes Biden should send more troops into Kabul to retake the capital city, McConnell demurs.
“I don’t know at this stage,” he told conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt.
“I’ll leave it up to him to figure out how to correct the mistake that he made,” he responded to CBS’ Norah O’Donnell.
Lawrence Wilkerson, the retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said McConnell and other advocates for remaining have failed to communicate the most geostrategic rationale for a continued presence: To keep a regional check on neighboring Pakistan, a dangerous nuclear power, as well as China, America’s foremost military rival.
“No one’s articulated that, let alone Mitch,” Wilkerson said. “We need to be ready to fight China and maybe even Russia. They will flow into vacancies that we leave.”
While the Biden administration is incurring widespread backlash for being caught off guard by the Taliban’s strength, it’s unclear if Americans will ultimately judge them harshly for getting out of the hobbled country.
The fiasco could reinforce American reluctance for continued unending deployments, thousands of miles away, bending Republican Party orthodoxy even further toward the Paul position.
“I think in the near-term the isolationists win,” said Roggio. “There just isn’t this groundswell of support to re-engage in a country that ultimately might lead to the same result as Afghanistan.”