President Biden announced the completion of the withdrawal initiated by his predecessor.
He had just won a narrow election few had the foresight to prognosticate correctly less than two years earlier. A definite plank of his appeal was castigation of America’s farrago of endless wars. In his run-up to power, he had proclaimed, “no more wasted lives,” and that he agreed “with President Obama … We should have a speedy withdrawal. … Why should we keep wasting our money — rebuild the U.S.” He flatly stated: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan.”
Trump agreed to a modest surge of troops in Afghanistan, that territory of blunder he had disparaged during his ascent. Then, he ultimately deferred to his ruling troika of generals: White House chief of staff John Kelly, secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. national security advisor H.R. McMaster. Back then, he gave an address at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia that looked (especially now) more hostage tape than it reminded of the vitriolic stemwinders against the establishment that made him president. For many of his core supporters, it was a grave disappointment.
In the years before he left Washington, Trump instructed his hawkish secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to negotiate, with Taliban officials, an exit from Afghanistan, something the hardliner did not relish. A May 1, 2021 deadline was hatched, and Trump made personnel choices he slated for a term two.
Honoring the May 1 deadline Trump set is not something Biden is pledging to do. But, as of Wednesday, he has pledged to do everything else.
Speaking from the Treaty Room at the White House, Biden seemed to take a shot not so much at Trump, as the Democratic president he once served. “Think about that. We delivered justice to [Osama] Bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since,” Biden said. “With the terror threat now in many places, keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders. We can not continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result.”
Biden says U.S. troops will be gone by September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of Bin Laden’s monstrous masterpiece. In Foreign Policy, veteran military reporter Mark Perry makes the case this week that Biden’s history loomed large: “For decades, his dealings with officers have been marked by an insistence on showing he’s not intimidated by them.” The most famous example, of course, being Biden’s blow-up with legendary general Stanley A. McChrystal, whose liquored-up divulgences to the late Michael Hastings, especially about the future president, ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone, making Hastings’ career and ended McChrystal’s.
But it is impossible and counterfactual to state for certain what Joe Biden would have done in Donald Trump’s shoes four years prior, when he didn’t have a predecessor who had pounded the pavement for four years attacking America’s endless wars from the Oval Office, something his predecessors never did.
For his part, Trump’s choice, Ruger (a TAC board member), hailed Wednesday’s news, while noting that those who favor a U.S. foreign policy in this direction should “trust, but verify” the new White House. In a call with Defense Priorities, Ruger said the decision resulted from an emerging “bipartisan consensus at the highest levels” — which included progressives like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Rep. Ro Khanna and conservatives such as Colorado Rep. Ken Buck and freshman Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer. Fending off the doubters, Ruger said Biden’s move was “hardly hasty or precipitous.”
The dean of foreign policy columnists, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, proclaimed that history will cast a shadow over Biden’s decision. McChrsytal’s old comrade, retired Gen. David Petraeus, told Defense One that the move was an “unforced error.” And Biden’s old friends, the Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, champions both of the last twenty years of American foreign policy, called the disembarkment a gift to America’s enemies and “dumber than dirt,” respectively.
U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, potential targets for enemy fire tonight. That fact will endure until at least September. A central reason the previous administration did not exit more swiftly was, of course, the fear of Taliban barbarism.
“I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for,” Biden once told the late, famed diplomat Ricahrd Holbrooke, as was recently recounted by Politico. But in that same report? Equivocation. “Both [Rep. Seth] Moulton and [a] former senior military officer noted that his past blowup with Holbrooke aside, Biden also wouldn’t want to be responsible for the deterioration of Afghan women’s rights in the case of American withdrawal.” But if Biden withdraws, he may well be responsible for such an outcome, that’s called a tradeoff, and failure to confront them has kept the United States in its longest war in history.