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Bad history and bad strategy in Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal
Last week, addressing a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden reaffirmed his intent to end America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. In doing so, he echoed his announcement from mid-April in which he justified the withdrawal of U.S. forces by appealing to an inaccurate version of history, a questionable strategy, and a misguided vision of America’s responsibilities in the world.
America, Afghanistan, and the world will be worse off for Biden’s effort to end what he misleadingly called “the forever war.”
In Biden’s version of history, the United States has been trapped in a “cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” as if the U.S. has repeatedly escalated the war, Vietnam-like, with no effect. If true, that would lend support to Biden’s argument that staying in Afghanistan any longer was bound to be fruitless.
No such cycle happened. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama increased the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010—and it worked. By 2010 the Taliban were on the back foot and outside observers, including the United Nations, judged that they had lost the military initiative. The United States had an opportunity to use its military leverage to push for a far more favorable resolution than now appears likely. Instead, the U.S. began to leave.
Following Obama’s withdrawal timetable and, subsequently, Trump’s peace deal, the United States decreased its military presence over the past decade, from 100,000 in 2010 to 2,500 last year (with a small and temporary reversal in Trump’s first year). Far from “extending and expanding” the U.S. military presence, Obama, Trump, and now Biden have been constraining and shrinking it. That is why the past decade has been little more than a holding pattern in a seemingly endless war.
Biden insisted that a withdrawal timetable was necessary and a conditions-based withdrawal was unrealistic. To those who advocated a conditions-based withdrawal, he asked, rhetorically, “Just what conditions will be required to allow us to depart? By what means and how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all?” Biden acted as if there were no answers—when scholars and policymakers, such as the Afghanistan Study Group, have spent years asking and answering exactly those questions.
There are no grounds for Biden’s claim that we have exhausted whatever gains our military can make against the Taliban. Unfortunately, Biden’s bad history makes for bad strategy. For example, he argued that “while we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” specifically promising “to support the rights of Afghan women and girls” with civilian aid. But removing military support undermines the conditions necessary to make such promises meaningful.
To be clear, Biden’s rhetoric is welcome, considering the United States’s strategic partnership agreements with Afghanistan in 2005 and 2012 and its broad commitment to support human rights and democracy abroad. Bush and Obama both understood that functional governance and basic stability in Afghanistan were crucial to the U.S.’s overall war aims.
But Biden’s promise to support governance and development in a war zone without the military is magical thinking. Civilian aid programs do not simply happen when Congress writes a check or the president gives a speech. They require officials to administer contracts and grants, oversee programs, ensure transparency and accountability, and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. These officials cannot do their jobs in a war zone without protection. Without security, aid programs are pointless.
Biden anticipated a related criticism about the interplay between hard and soft power in his speech. “I know there are many who will loudly insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust U.S. military presence to stand as leverage,” he said. “We gave that argument a decade. It’s never proved effective.”
We did not “give that argument a decade.” The United States cut civilian aid every year since 2010, continuously shrinking the programs that were supposed to invest in Afghan partner capacity and hasten the day when the United States could responsibly exit. Earlier, Obama came close to combining a robust military engagement and well-funded civilian effort—and he undermined both with his public withdrawal timetables. Overall, both the civilians and the soldiers were given too little to work with, and then blamed for failing to achieve the impossible.
Biden’s promise to remain engaged diplomatically while pulling out militarily is rhetorical window-dressing on what most observers recognize is a straightforward retreat. Aid to Afghanistan may occupy a line or two in the U.S. federal budget for a few years, after which it will be increasingly easy to ignore the Taliban’s advances and abuses. Pretending otherwise—especially pretending that the U.S. will somehow continue to support women’s rights in Afghanistan—is an insult to Afghans’ intelligence.
Many Americans are likely to shrug off the plight of Afghan women and girls and give Biden leeway to reprioritize U.S. foreign policy. But Biden’s magical thinking is not limited to human rights in Afghanistan. More worryingly, he also seems to have no real strategy for combating terrorist groups in South Asia after the withdrawal.
Biden promised to “reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities” to prevent al Qaeda’s reemergence. Supporters are likely to argue that we can keep the pressure on al Qaeda from afar, with armed drones. But drones require airfields, which require groundcrews for security, refueling, maintenance, and more. Airfields in Afghanistan would require a continued military presence. Airfields in neighboring countries would require the same, plus overflight permissions.
Ground troops and drones are not alternatives to each other, but supplementary tools which work best when they work together. For example, troops provide intelligence and targeting information that make drones more accurate. If the U.S. intends to keep an eye on terrorist threats, as Biden claimed, there is no alternative to some form of military presence in Afghanistan or the region.
Biden wants to end the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan and rely on stand-off strikes against terrorist targets. This is the worst feature of Biden’s Afghanistan policy. It reflects an unjust vision of American responsibilities in the world. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead,” the president said. Since bin Laden’s death, “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”
Biden is talking about the war as if the U.S. went to Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and nothing more. Getting bin Laden was, of course, part of the mission—but only part. As Bush explained many times, the war had to be about more than that. In April 2002, Bush said, “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army.”
This is a better description of the United States’s war aims than Biden’s narrow focus on killing al Qaeda’s leader. Bush did not begin to devote the budget, resources, and personnel necessary to make these words a reality until 2007, thanks in part to the war in Iraq, but he did seem to understand intuitively that the war had to aim at a vision of peace and justice, not simply at killing bad guys. Bush’s vision is more morally defensible, and it is also more strategically coherent: a stable Afghanistan would be capable of denying safe haven to al Qaeda on its own without an indefinite international military presence.
In other areas of foreign policy, Biden seems to understand the importance of norms, values, and democratic stability. He has spoken of the need to reinvigorate democratic ideals and shore up solidarity among free countries against the aspirations of authoritarian nations like Russia and China. It is odd, then, that Biden is so ready to abandon an island of fragile and emerging democracy in an important region.
In his inaugural address Biden cited Augustine of Hippo, a revered fourth century Christian theologian. As any student of Augustine knows, just war aims at building a better peace, a more just and lasting peace, than what existed prior to war. The United States did not start the war against al Qaeda, but in undertaking it we assumed the responsibility to pursue justice and peace—for ourselves, for the Afghans in whose country we fought, and for the world threatened by international terrorist groups.
Fulfilling that responsibility would involve a long-term commitment to security, governance, and development, which is what we repeatedly promised the Afghans in several international agreements.
Despite being there for 20 years, the United States only came close to doing that during the narrow window of Bush and Obama’s surge. For the rest of the time, the U.S. played whack-a-mole with terrorists, because that is what we are good at.
A single-minded focus on killing bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders is little more than a war of revenge and bloodlust. Unfortunately, because of Bush’s light footprint and shift of focus to Iraq, Obama’s withdrawal timetable, Trump’s peace deal, and Biden’s withdrawal, that seems to be the only thing that the U.S. war in Afghanistan accomplished.