“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a speech on April 14. “Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
Biden’s speech officially announced his administration’s decision to begin a final withdraw of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in May and complete it by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. that set the United States on the path to war in Afghanistan.
The announcement was previewed in a press call on April 13, in which a senior administration official aired the news and set the commentariat to chattering.
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board immediately lambasted Biden for taking the “easy way out.” The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haas, decried the decision on Twitter: “Disappointing that Biden admin opted for calendar-rather than conditions-based withdrawal from Afghanistan. Costs of staying relatively low (3K troops, no US combat deaths since 2/20);costs of leaving (terrorism revival, spike in repression by Taliban, hit to US reputation) high.” Republican lawmakers, like Senator Lindsey Graham, were sharp in their critiques: “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous.” Some Democrat lawmakers were also dismayed.
Others had more nuanced takes, such as Eliot A. Cohen who wrote for The Atlantic that “This cannot be a moment for final judgment about America’s Afghan war — we are simply too close to make measured assessments.” Critically, an American exit, he notes, is not the end of the war; and exiting comes with real moral costs. The Belfer Center collected perspectives that reflect a range of thoughtful positions.
Over the course of nearly 20 years, the United States’ mission in Afghanistan shifted and twisted. Americans pledged to never forget the original trigger — the September 11 attacks — but the war it sparked faded from view for many. Biden remarked that a decade ago, in 2011, the United States got Osama bin Laden, whom he and many others had pledged to follow “to the gates of hell.” And yet, the U.S. military remained in Afghanistan.
The question of why the United States was still involved in the war persisted, uncomfortably, as did the questions of what the U.S. sought to accomplish and when it would leave.
Prior attempts to set timelines gave way to surges of troops, in an effort to create the proper “conditions” under which the U.S. could withdraw, presumably victorious. President Donald Trump followed the same pattern as his predecessor: promoting a withdrawal, surging troops, then withdrawing them but not completely. Trump’s administration stressed it would follow a “conditions-based” withdrawal plan, then proceeded to agree to and follow a timeline-based schedule. The “conditions” are a white whale, unobtainable; they served as a fig leaf for failure.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create ideal conditions for a withdrawal and expecting a different result,” Biden said.
In his remarks, Biden said the September 11 attacks “cannot explain” why U.S. forces should remain in Afghanistan 20 years later. The arguments made by those decrying Biden’s decision broadly center on the potential reversal of the social and political progress made during the U.S. war in Afghanistan, particularly for women, and the notion that Afghanistan may once again become a training ground for terrorists. It’s unclear how the U.S. military remaining in Afghanistan prevents either of those to satisfaction.
In the April 13 press call, the senior administration official said, “We judge the threat against the homeland now emanating from Afghanistan to be at a level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban.”
While the Taliban largely ceased attacks on U.S. forces following the February 2020 deal, its attacks on Afghan government forces continued apace. Meanwhile, a terrifying campaign of targeted assassinations has killed an increasing number of journalists, activists, and others, many of them women — all while U.S. troops remained in the country.
Afghan civil society has been demanding a seat at the negotiating table, from both the Taliban and the Afghan government, arguing that wider societal input is vital to establishing any kind of lasting peace. That’s not something the U.S. military being stationed physically in Afghanistan, in any number, has the power to give. It, like the peace process, is in Afghan hands.
Few are foolish enough to argue that the war in Afghanistan can be “won.” The administration official on April 13 put it this way: “We’ve long known that military force would not solve Afghanistan’s internal political challenges, would not end Afghanistan’s internal conflict.”
In his speech, Biden recounted traveling to Afghanistan’s Kunar valley in 2008, weeks before being sworn into office as vice president. “What I saw on that trip only reinforced my conviction that only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country. And that more, and endless, American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.”
This isn’t to say there are no risks in the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan, but that the challenges faced by the United States extend far beyond it. Biden described the terrorist threat as metastasized, becoming more dispersed around the world. Keeping thousands of troops grounded in Afghanistan, Biden argued, simply does not make sense.
“There is a significant risk once the U.S. military and the coalition militaries withdraw,” new CIA Director William Burns told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. But, he added, the United States would retain “a suite of capabilities.”
There exist a range of foreign policy tools in the vast space between military occupation and total abandonment. The Biden administration wants to use those tools.
The administration official on April 13 went on to outline that U.S. is going to remain “deeply engaged” with the Afghan government and remains committed to the Afghan people. To that end, the U.S. will continue to support the diplomatic process and “we will also look to work with other countries using diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian tools to protect the gains made by Afghan women.”
Biden repeated this in his speech, stating that in addition to ongoing support for the peace process, the U.S. would “continue to support Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian and development assistance.”
Biden and his administration framed its decision as an effort to “address the global threat picture as it exists today, not as it was two decades ago,” as the administration official put it on April 13.
“We have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us,” Biden said, listing the necessity to “track and disrupt” terrorist networks that spread far beyond Afghanistan; shore up U.S. competitiveness to face “an increasingly assertive” China; work with democratic allies and partners to confront the challenges of emerging technologies; and defeat the present pandemic (and prepare for the next). “We will be much more formidable … if we fight the battles of the next 20 years, not the last 20.”
On Wednesday, ahead of his speech, Biden called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition,” Ghani said after the call. Other Afghan lawmakers have warned of an impending civil war after the United States withdraws; such concerns are not new.
It’s worth recalling what Sohrab Azad wrote for The Diplomat in November 2020, assessing a core paradox:
If the Biden administration keeps a small presence of troops and the Taliban decide to back out of peace talks, then a diplomatic solution is nearly impossible. If Biden decides to fully withdraw, then a decisive military victory for the Afghan government is nearly impossible.
For the Taliban, they have the resources and infrastructure to continue the war. For the Americans, the spread of COVID-19 at home and rebuilding global alliances will soon become their primary focus. For Afghans, this is a lose-lose situation.
If the war is a lose-lose situation for the Afghans, it is a no-win scenario for the Americans. Biden was set up by circumstances and his predecessors to choose among only bad options and he has decided.
“No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever. But they insist that now is not the right moment to leave,” Biden commented in his speech. He noted that seven years ago, in 2014, NATO said Afghan security forces would be fully responsible for the country’s security by the end of that year.
“So when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? 10, 20, 30 billion dollars more over the trillions we’ve already spent? Not now. That’s how we got here.”