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Faculty Viewpoints

Leadership Lessons for Biden after the Afghanistan Withdrawal

As the Taliban reestablishes its hold on Afghanistan, President Joe Biden is facing criticism for his handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld offers advice for the president on recovering from his missteps, drawn from Sonnenfeld’s decades of studies of business and political leadership.

President Joe Biden leaving the podium after speaking at the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden on August 16, 2021, after speaking at the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This commentary originally appeared in Fortune.

Generals since World War I have often been accused of fighting the last war, but presidents must surely look forward.

Every newspaper banner headline Monday morning reflected the horror over the chaotic U.S. exit as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban theocracy. Despite recent polls showing 78% support for full troop withdrawal, President Biden faced widespread criticism over the execution of that withdrawal. Military leaders I spoke with felt confused and demoralized, after a 20-year campaign that resulted in thousands of lost U.S. lives and the seemingly squandered investment of a trillion dollars.

In the aftermath of intense criticism, President Biden’s powerful address Monday promptly transcended the prior weekend’s inadequate damage control messaging. However, Biden’s effort to show his own and America’s resilience has just begun.

Anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s great work The Hero with a Thousand Faces advised that all leaders across cultures, continents, and centuries are defined as heroic through their ability to rebound from tragedy. Such resilience marks Biden’s life history. Most leaders are felled by adversity and do not recover. Those who make it through are toughened like steel, and they’re supposed to be wiser from the setback.

I have studied this topic extensively for 40 years, as summarized in my books The Hero’s Farewell and Firing Back, and I have advised thousands of leaders on such resilience. Here are some key lessons from my studies, applied to what President Biden said on Monday, what he got right, and what his next steps should be:

Acknowledging missteps

Unacknowledged miscalls eroded the credibility of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush after, respectively, the faulty-premised 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the failed 1969 Vietnamization of the war in that country, and the 2002 Iraq invasion in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. Franklin D. Roosevelt, by contrast, appeared to level with the American public on December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor bombing, when we were caught off guard.

The American public can be enormously forgiving if you’re candid, and if they believe you.

A few weeks ago, President Biden inaccurately reassured the public that “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” On Monday, Biden apparently recognized he had to admit this was wrong. He called the withdrawal from Afghanistan “hard and messy and far from perfect.” “I am President of the United States of America. The buck stops with me,” he said, later adding, “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.”

Holding advisors accountable

This was John F. Kennedy’s learning, between the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the far better response in the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK enlisted support from Eisenhower, his predecessor, who took JFK on long walks in the woods and scolded him for believing the filtered, misleading intel from CIA director Allen Dulles—and Kennedy promptly fired Dulles. Former secretaries of defense Ashton Carter and Robert Gates; former director of national security John Negroponte; former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and Colin Powell; and Generals Barry McCaffery and Stan McChrystal could provide such candid, impartial advice to Biden now.

Where Afghanistan is concerned, some presidential advisors with sterling technocratic credentials lacked strategic wisdom and leadership judgment. Someone didn’t get the correct, vital information to help make the right decision—or did not have the skills to properly convey, inform, and persuade the president. This tragically led Biden to walk out on a weak limb of accuracy to give the nation, the Afghans, and the world false reassurances. As McCaffery said on MSNBC, “The thinking behind this withdrawal was rapid and inadequate. [Afghan forces] collectively decided that the U.S. was going and that their own corrupt and incompetent leaders were stealing their pay. They decided to switch sides and walk away. It was a disgraceful harmful image for the U.S., but President Biden was dead-on on target.”

Moving past apologies and finger-pointing

Recovering leaders often get trapped between demanding exoneration and denying culpability, on the one hand, or seeking contrition—and looking weak.

Recovering leaders often get trapped between demanding exoneration and denying culpability, on the one hand, or seeking contrition—and looking weak. Some try both paths at once, confusing everyone. This is what diverted, if not derailed, the second term of Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, was great at elevating and reframing issues, with unifying wit and imagery that did not sound like off-putting anger.

President Biden highlighted that “I inherited a deal negotiated by President Trump.” That deal drew down the troop count from 15,500 to 2,500 troops before Biden took office. Even former adversaries can be highly credible voices at such times when it comes to sharing blame. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said, “This began with the Trump administration negotiating with terrorists and pretending they were partners for peace ,and is ending with American surrender as Biden abandons the country to our terrorist enemies.” Top Trump administration national security officials such as KT McFarland have acknowledged that triumph of the Taliban was inevitable: “The truth is the Afghan war was lost 19 years ago,” McFarland recently said on Fox News, “when we switched from our original mission of destroying Al Qaeda to a new mission—nation building a modern Afghanistan.”

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, condemned the last president for undermining the fragile democratic Afghan government, saying on MSNBC, “The agreement President Trump signed in February 2020 gave legitimacy to the Taliban, leaving out the Afghan government and asking for nothing in return.” (In March 2020, President Trump announced, “We had a very good conversation with the leader of Taliban today… They want to get this ended. Even they are tired of fighting.”)

Demonstrating control and mastery

The public lost faith in Jimmy Carter because he gave the impression of hiding in the Rose Garden rather than instilling a sense of confidence. The official photo released on Monday of President Biden surrounded by empty chairs, staring blankly at a TV screen, was ill-considered.

Reports indicate that Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, with advice from a team lead by former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, warned that the U.S. exit process was implementing the wrong pace and staging—lacking milestones of proven peaceful transition and trust as well as needed contingency planning. Military officials on the ground warned that the Afghan military was not ready for a U.S. withdrawal Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine who served four tours in Iraq, said, “The time to debate whether we stay in Afghanistan has passed, but there is still time to debate how we manage our retreat.” Similarly, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Col.), an Army Combat veteran, said on MSNBC, “There is plenty of opportunity for Monday morning quarterbacking later. We still have an opportunity to save lives.”

However, this Monday, President Biden was resolute in strongly reinforcing his decision: “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong. Incredibly well equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.”

Biden added: “It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. The political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down.”

Biden announced an emergency deployment of additional U.S. troops, soon to total 6,000 on the ground in Afghanistan and the accelerated processing of special immigrant visas to help loyal allies to safety beyond the 2,000 refugees recently rescued. In fact, on Tuesday, the Pentagon announced it had increased its capabilities to evacuate up to 9,000 American expats and Afghan refugees daily.

Explaining the future mission

President Biden redirected the nation’s path—outlining one narrowly focused on counter terrorism and fortifying the Afghan people through international diplomacy and humanitarian assistance: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”

“I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war-fighting in Afghanistan and maintain a laser focus on our counterterrorism mission, there and other parts of the world. Our mission to degrade the terrorist threat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden was a success. Our decades-long effort to overcome centuries of history and permanently change and remake Afghanistan was not.”

We can’t go backwards, nor revive Winston Churchill’s wartime reassurance that “this is just the end of the beginning.” Tragically, many Afghanis, believe this is the beginning of the end. To Americans, there must be a new beginning.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints