President Biden announces a full pull out by September 11, 2021. Technically, it’s a delay from Trump’s planned withdrawal on May 1, but either way all fair minded observers should hope he can succeed where both his predecessors failed and end one of the longest wars in US history.
President Joe Biden and I finally agree on something: It’s past time to end the war in Afghanistan and get our troops back home as soon as possible. Of course, this is something that should be self-evident to any rational observer. We’ve been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years and have been mired in an endless quagmire for most of that time. Further, our original objectives, destroying Al Qaeda and capturing or killing the leadership that planned 9-11 have long since been achieved. What we have to gain there at this point except more lives lost is entirely unclear.
Biden, as Vice President under Obama, was actually ahead of the curve on this one, even as he failed to deliver the first time around. In 2012, he declared “We’ve agreed on a gradual drawdown, so we’re out of there by the year—in the year 2014. It does not depend for us [on the conditions]. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security.” He concluded emphatically, “We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014, period.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Biden is President now, and he’s assuring us once again that the endless war, the longest in America’s history, save our conflict with the Barbary Pirates that began when Thomas Jefferson was in office, will finally end. He’s even set a symbolic date, all troops will be out by September 11, 2021, the twenty year anniversary of 9-11 and the terrorist attack that started our increased military engagement in the Middle East.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking, ” Biden said during a speech yesterday from the White House Treaty Room, the same location President George W. Bush used to announce the beginning of the war in October 2001. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives,” Biden continued. “Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is degraded in Afghanistan and it’s time to end the forever war.”
The only problem is: The withdrawal data set by former President Trump was May 1, 2021, meaning Biden himself is already delaying the plan by 5 months. At this point, multiple presidents have tried unsuccessfully to end the war. First, Obama, then Trump, and now Biden. When Obama wanted to leave, Republicans cried foul. When Trump wanted to leave, everyone cried foul. Now, it’s the Republicans’ turn again, and, sure enough, leading Senators were not happy with Biden’s announcement.
Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to voice his concern. “Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake. It is a retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished and abdication of American leadership. A reckless pullback like this would abandon our Afghan, regional, and NATO partners in a shared fight against terrorists that we have not yet won. It will also specifically abandon the women of Afghanistan, whose individual freedoms and human rights will be imperiled.”
Other Republicans took to Twitter. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina wrote, “If reports are accurate that President Biden is withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan by September of this year, it is a disaster in the making. A full withdrawal from #Afghanistan is so irresponsible, it makes the Biden Administration policies at the border look sound.” Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, also tweeted something similar, “I’ve always said any withdrawal from Afghanistan must be conditions-based. @POTUS’s decision to use an arbitrary date for withdrawal is clearly political – not to mention reckless and dangerous.”
Of course, completely left unsaid is that Afghanistan has been a disaster for at least 15 years now. More than 2,200 soldiers have lost their lives and approximately 20,000 have been injured. US taxpayers have spent around $1 trillion dollars with little visible results: The Taliban, albeit a different version than the original group that provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden, are still in charge of most of the country. As has been the case with many of our national building adventures overseas, the initial invasion was carried out with the precision and force we expect from the most powerful military in the known universe, but everything after has been nothing but disappointment and failure. This disappointment and failure has been so extreme at times that none other than Osama bin Laden himself managed to escape the country after our initial invasion.
Alas, these failures aren’t due to a lack of effort. President George W. Bush deployed around 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. The number increased by about 6,000 while he remained in office, for a total of about 36,000 when Obama took over. Obama himself declared it the good war as opposed to Iraq, and promptly increased troops by about 50%. “This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires,” he said in a written statement. “The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border.”
Back then, the theme of a resurgence of the Taliban was a common one. “There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum,” Obama also said in 2009. “Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe-havens along the border. And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan Security Forces and better secure the population.”
Ultimately, Obama concluded, “So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you.”
To his credit, he tried. Troops were increased to a large force of 98,000 by 2011, three times as many as when we started and close to the level that was deployed in Iraq. Twelve years later, however, the Taliban remains so resurgent that former President Trump actively negotiated with them throughout our plans to withdraw. The country remains theirs’ despite twenty years of investment in blood and treasure. Why anyone thinks this dynamic will change if we only stayed a little longer, remains a complete mystery.
This is doubly true when the military itself is aware of their failure and has repeatedly sought to cover it up. In December of 2019, The Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers based on 2,000 pages of interview and memos that “reveal a secret history of the war.” The Post’s reporting is thanks to a Freedom of Information request for the details underlying the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) own assessment of the matter and the picture isn’t pretty. The report is rife with what The Atlantic describes as “waste, abuse, and questionable judgement in a host of…programs and projects.”
Amazingly, the papers also reveal what The Atlantic calls the “breathtaking ambition” of our goals there including “to oust a Taliban regime that gave haven to international terrorists; to defeat those terrorists and their allies and supporters in a counterinsurgency campaign; to set up and sustain a democratic government in a society riven by years of factional war; and to promote human development, human security, and basic human rights in a country where religious extremists, drug lords, and tribal chiefs had long ruled over (and fought for control of) a beleaguered populace.”
How did we do? The Atlantic notes, “The overarching result seems to be a sort of D-minus—some degree of visible achievement, but still a failing grade.”
To his credit, former President Donald Trump tried, repeatedly, to realize Obama’s goal of getting us out. In February of 2020, he brokered a deal with the Taliban to remove all troops, declaring that we had undertaken a “long and hard journey” in Afghanistan. “It’s time after all these years to bring our people back home.” Further, he understood that he was, in fact, turning the country over to the Taliban. “I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time, ” Mr. Trump added. “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no-one’s ever seen.”
Of course, reaction wasn’t exactly positive at the time and after. Negative stories about the deal persisted until very recently. For example, just last month, The New Yorker was decrying that Trump had left Biden with a “terrible situation” because the deal was struck out of desperation to “allow him to say he had ended the war.” “Afghanistan presents Joe Biden with one of the most immediate and vexing problems of his Presidency. If he completes the military withdrawal, he will end a seemingly interminable intervention and bring home thousands of troops. But, if he wants the war to be considered anything short of an abject failure, the Afghan state will have to be able to stand on its own.”
At the risk of repeating myself, why anyone thinks the Afghan state will stand on its own after all this time remains a complete mystery. The question now for the endless war advocates: What are the current 2,500 troops still in Afghanistan going to do to change the dynamic? We’ve had close to 100,000 and failed. How can 2,500 achieve anything?
I say this as someone who enthusiastically supported the initial invasion and continued to support our efforts there for over 10 years. At this point, however, we’re getting awfully close to the old adage about insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We have been unable to dislodge the Taliban in 20 years, another year is not going to make the difference.
The only difference this time around might be a media desperate to fawn over Biden’s every move. CNN, for example, reported on Biden’s speech as “a decisive moment for a President not yet 100 days into the job,” while barely mentioning he, in fact, announced a delay in our withdrawal. Their analysis this morning concluded that “With his new vow Wednesday to get troops home from Afghanistan and his big legislative proposals that elevate the working class, including a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, Biden is eying achievements his predecessor talked up but failed to accomplish.” They further noted, “While the previous two presidents made progress in various ways toward those goals, the current commander-in-chief has put them at the heart of everything he does.”
This is, of course, partisan spin masquerading as news at its most ridiculous, but either way, I wish President Biden good luck and Godspeed finally getting us out. Whatever it takes.