There is no question that Joe Biden has been a longtime skeptic of the war in Afghanistan. When, as vice president in the Obama administration, he was sitting in on meetings about how to save the country from a Taliban resurgence, Biden consistently came down on the opposite side of the generals who were recommending the deployment of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to salvage the war effort. Robert Gates, the secretary of defense during those discussions, remarked that Biden fought the troop surge “tooth and nail.”
More than a decade removed from those intense policy discussions, now–President Biden has arrived at the same conclusion Americans coast-to-coast have held for years that there is nothing left in Afghanistan for the U.S. military to win. During an April 14 address to the nation a day after the withdrawal announcement, Biden placed a special emphasis on the value of time. “I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan,” he said at the White House. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
While the decision must have been difficult to make, the president made the right call. U.S. troops should have been withdrawn yesterday.
While the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, certainly feels like a date washed in symbolism, the fact that an end date has been explicitly and publicly spelled out is a strong indication of the White House’s desire to cut the cord on a 20-year conflict. Reports that Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly briefed Afghan president Ashfraf Ghani on the decision say as much about Washington’s distaste for Ghani’s leadership as they do about the American public’s distaste for the war.
Critics of a full and complete U.S. withdrawal will make the argument (as they have year after year) that leaving Afghanistan will expose the U.S. to a torrent of terrorist hell that the world has never seen. These arguments, however, would have you believe that defending a corrupt, incompetent, and divided Afghan government is synonymous with protecting U.S. national-security interests. Such logic convinced multiple U.S. administrations to stay the course in Afghanistan to the tune of $2 trillion and 2,488 U.S. casualties, despite the utter infeasibility of creating an economically vibrant, peaceful, pro-U.S. democracy in a nation where conflict has been a disturbing fact of life since the 1970s. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s contention that “foreign terrorists will not leave the United States alone” totally misses the point and indeed assumes that the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus needs an unconditional ground presence on Afghan soil to do its work — a notion leaning more on assumptions than cold, hard facts.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for so long that it’s easy to forget precisely why Washington intervened in the first place. Still recuperating from the worst terrorist attack on American soil in its history, the U.S. set out to accomplish two very clear, narrow missions in Afghanistan: annihilate the al-Qaeda terrorist network that committed those destructive acts, and punish the Taliban regime for harboring the group. Those objectives were not only justifiable, but achievable. Indeed, by the early months of 2002, both organizations were either begging to become a part of the new Afghan order or were running for their lives from safe house to safe house. The U.S., in effect, won the war it chose to fight.
Unfortunately, Washington couldn’t take yes for an answer. Rather than acknowledging success, U.S. leaders sought new objectives and expanded the mission into one that can only be described as nation-building in the extreme. It was a mistake of fundamental proportions. The result, as has become so apparent in the decades since, is a country inundated with seemingly irreconcilable problems: a central government more interested in fighting itself than in meeting the needs of its constituents; a political elite disincentivized to move itself out of America’s shadow; and a governing structure so riddled with corruption and dependency that the state itself is constantly teetering on the edge of collapse.
Before today’s announcement, the atmosphere in Washington was one of nervous anticipation. U.S. military officers were beginning to get impatient with the lack of a decision. People were wondering whether a withdrawal would expose the Pentagon to lawsuits from contractors, who would have to end their services faster than anticipated (I must admit that continuing the war to avoid lawsuits was a talking point I didn’t expect). Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Miley was apparently so insistent on keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan that he became emotional.
But when push came to shove, the Biden administration didn’t let emotion drive the decision-making process (although choosing 9/11 as the final withdrawal date could be construed as an emotional decision). The U.S. was looking at two distinct options: use U.S. troops as leverage to push the Taliban into making a peace agreement, or accept the reality of the situation and save U.S. forces from having to endure another generation of deployments in a country with next-to-no strategic significance. The former would have likely persuaded the Taliban to pull out of the already floundering intra-Afghan peace process and pushed the movement into resuming large-scale operations against U.S. troops, increasing the risk of additional casualties. A continuation of the war would have also thrown more U.S. troops into the tight clutches of the sunk-cost fallacy, where an even deeper involvement is driven by a fear of squandering whatever minimal gains that may have been achieved after years of investment and sacrifice. These are risks President Biden rightly wants to avoid.
Let’s face it: Afghanistan will not see peace in its immediate future. It could very well be the case that the Taliban resumes offensive operations against the Afghan government after U.S. troops pack up and leave. The Taliban engaging in serious diplomacy after September 2021 is hard to envision, particularly given the realities on the ground.
But the thing too many people refuse to admit is that the same events would probably occur if Washington extended the U.S. troop presence indefinitely. The only difference between these two scenarios is that an indefinite presence would spike the U.S. death toll.
Speaking on background to the Washington Post, a senior Biden administration official put it this way: “The reality is that the United States has big strategic interests in the world. . . . Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point.”
It may sound impolitic or blunt. But for veterans, military families, and the American public at large, the words ring true.