Biden’s plan to get out of Afghanistan risks repeating the ‘end’ of the war in Iraq

Afghanistan
A US soldier watches a UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter land in southeastern Afghanistan, August 4, 2019.

  • Biden’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 doesn’t comply with the peace deal but is welcome.
  • But Biden has to stick to his plan and refuse to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.
  • Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In a video address to the nation on Wednesday last week, President Joe Biden announced the 20-year US war in Afghanistan will finally end by September of this year.

It’s not quite the timeline of the pact negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration: Biden said he’ll “begin” the final US withdrawal on May 1, which was to be the deadline for its completion, and instead complete it by the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

This doesn’t exactly comply with the peace deal, but it doesn’t discard it, either, and that could prove enough to hold the Taliban to its side of the bargain.

This is excellent news – long overdue, but only made more welcome by two decades of delay. Biden’s brief speech made a cogent case for US departure from Afghanistan, giving weight to his insistence that this plan is to be taken seriously. That weight is, frankly, needed with a war of this length, cost, and chaos.

Indeed, the challenge for Biden over the next four months will be keeping to his own agenda, refusing to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.

Kuwait US soldiers Iraq withdrawal
Kuwaiti and US soldiers close the border gate after the last vehicle crossed into Kuwait during the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, December 18, 2011.

Biden’s arguments for ending US intervention in Afghanistan were practical and persuasive. He pointed to the futility of Washington’s nation-building attempts and argued for Afghan self-determination and resolution of what is essentially a civil war.

Recounting a trip to the country in 2008, Biden affirmed that “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country.”

An endless US war can’t “create or sustain a durable Afghan government,” he said, and we are foolish to continue to try. This is the problem with the conditions-based exit scheme long popular among the bipartisan foreign policy establishment: The conditions will never be met. Thus an ostensible schema for ending the war is in practice a tool to prolong it perpetually, as Biden seems to understand.

The president emphasized the distinction between the war’s initial mission – retribution for 9/11 and “ensur[ing] Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again” – and the aimless mission creep of subsequent years. He promised US counterterror programs would continue to keep Americans safe.

The connection he could have drawn a bit more boldly, however, is that the counterterrorism model of 2001 (invading, occupying, and manipulating a whole country because it hosted terrorist training camps) makes no sense in 2021 (when far more advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities allow the US to monitor and address threats emanating from anywhere in the world).

Army soldiers Iraq withdrawal
Soldiers from the last US military unit to depart Iraq arrive at Fort Hood in Texas, December 21, 2011.

“Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way – US boots on the ground,” Biden rightly said. He should have made clearer that US counterterrorism doesn’t require forever wars either.

That absence is part of what leaves me still a bit skeptical about this plan. In previews of the announcement last week, Biden administration officials told The Washington Post the “goal is to move to ‘zero’ troops [in Afghanistan] by September.”

But a New York Times report the same day revealed “zero” may not mean “zero”: “Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats, current and former American officials said.”

That means this might not be the full withdrawal the remarks suggest. Biden said he wouldn’t pass the responsibility of “presid[ing] over an American troop presence in Afghanistan” to a fifth consecutive president, but that’s only true if we use a deceptively narrow definition of “troops.”

As it stands, it appears Biden’s plan is to keep a small American military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Afghanistan

That continuous exposure to attacks from anti-American forces opens the door to future re-escalation, to precisely the “cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan” Biden decried. It opens the door to an “end” of a war unfortunately reminiscent of the Obama administration’s “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.

There too, ending combat operations didn’t mean going to a true “zero” troop presence. The war re-escalated just three years later when the Islamic State registered as a new regional threat, and it has continued ever since.

“It’s time for American troops to come home” from Afghanistan, Biden said last Wednesday. That’s absolutely correct, and the president should match those words with a full exit that precludes all possibility of resuming our country’s longest war.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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