Today, President Joe Biden announced that by September the United States will withdraw the 2500 or so troops remaining in Afghanistan. We have been on a military mission in the country for almost 20 years, and have lost 2488 troops and personnel. Another 20,722 Americans have been wounded.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—which killed almost 3000 people in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania-- to go after Osama bin Laden, who had been behind the attack. The Islamic fundamentalist group that had controlled Afghanistan since 1996, the Taliban, was sheltering him, along with other al Qaeda militants. Joined by an international coalition, the U.S. drove the Taliban from power, but its members quickly regrouped as an insurgent military force that attacked the Afghan government the U.S. propped up in their place. By 2018, the Taliban had reestablished itself in more than two thirds of Afghanistan.
In the years since 2001, three U.S. presidents have tried to strengthen the Afghan government to keep the nation from again becoming a staging ground for terrorists that could attack the U.S. But even a troop surge, like President Barack Obama launched into the region in 2009, could not permanently defeat the Taliban, well funded as it is by foreign investors, mining, opium, and a sophisticated tax system it operates in the shadow of the official government.
Eager to end a military commitment that journalist Dexter Filkins dubbed the “forever war,” the previous president, Donald Trump, sent officials to negotiate with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the U.S. agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops, along with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, by May 1, so long as the Taliban stopped attacking U.S. troops and cut ties with terrorists.
The U.S. did not include the Afghan government in the talks that led to the deal, leaving it to negotiate its own terms with the Taliban after the U.S. had already announced it was heading home. Observers at the time were concerned that the U.S. withdrawal would essentially allow the Taliban to retake control of the country, where the previous twenty years had permitted the reestablishment of stability and women’s rights. Indeed, almost immediately, Taliban militants began an assassination campaign against Afghan leaders, although they have not killed any American soldiers since the deal was signed.
Biden has made it no secret that he was not comfortable with the seemingly endless engagement in Afghanistan, but he was also boxed in by Trump’s agreement. Meanwhile, by announcing the U.S. intentions, American officials took pressure off the Taliban to negotiate with Afghan leaders. The Pentagon’s inspector general noted in February that “The Taliban intends to stall the negotiations until U.S. and coalition forces withdraw so that it can seek a decisive military victory over the Afghan government.”
Making his announcement in the Treaty Room in the White House, where President George W. Bush announced the initial strikes on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in October 2001, Biden reminded listeners that we went into Afghanistan to guarantee that it would not again be used as a base for terrorists to attack the U.S. That goal was accomplished and Osama bin Laden was killed… ten years ago, he noted. But the U.S. stayed on, even as the terrorist threat changed, spreading around the world.
Now, Biden says, he will honor Trump’s agreement—“an agreement made by the United States government… means something,” Biden said—and he will begin a final withdrawal on May 1, 2021. It will be complete before September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Biden acknowledged the arguments of those who say that Afghan diplomacy depends on the presence of U.S. troops. But, he said, that thinking would keep us there indefinitely. “[W]hen will it be the right moment to leave? One more year, two more years, ten more years? Ten, twenty, thirty billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent?” No one seemed to be able to give a clear answer to what conditions would permit us to leave, he said, which suggests there is no clear mission in staying.
Biden denied that withdrawing would hurt U.S. credibility, saying the opposite is true. “We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.” He noted that the parents of some of those serving in Afghanistan served in the same military action. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded in Iraq — in Afghanistan,” he said, “And it’s time to end the forever war.”
Biden has indicated that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of a larger plan to readjust our position on the world stage. He made it a point today to say that it is time to fight the battles of the next twenty years, rather than the last twenty, and he called out “an increasingly assertive China” as our main focus. He also called for reinforcing international norms that “are grounded in our democratic values… not those of the autocrats.”
Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is not an indication that he intends to stop flexing U.S. might, but rather that he is deploying it elsewhere. Last week, the U.S. destroyer the USS John S. McCain passed through the Taiwan Strait and the carrier Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea to “conduct routine operations.” While these are international waters, China strongly objects to foreign naval activity in them, and the U.S. activity there indicates support for a secure Taiwan.
At the same time, Russia is building up its military presence around Ukraine to a level much like that when it invaded Crimea in 2014. Experts speculate that Russia is trying to distract attention from opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s slow decline in a prison camp. It could also be trying to keep Ukraine from making a deal to join NATO or creating a defense pact with Turkey. NATO’s secretary general has warned Putin to cut it out, and the U.S. Navy is apparently sending two destroyers to pass through the straits in Turkey that lead to the Black Sea, on which both Ukraine and Russia sit.
If the Biden administration is showing military strength, perhaps even more powerfully it is demonstrating the nation’s financial might. Today, the administration indicated that it will be announcing sweeping financial sanctions for Russia’s recent cyberattack on the United States, the report that the Russian government offered bounties to Taliban soldiers for killing U.S. troops, and the Russian effort to interfere in U.S. elections since at least 2016.
On April 13, in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden “made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to Russia’s actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference.” He also called for building a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia, and proposed a meeting in a third country to hash out “the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia.”
Finally, Biden’s attention has turned from Afghanistan likely in part because of the rise of right-wing domestic terrorism to its highest level in 25 years. Combatting domestic terrorism is an imperative part of our foreign policy, for if the U.S. cannot defend democracy at home, it will have no credibility in trying to defend it abroad.