Joe Biden would like to bring the troops home from Afghanistan. It’s such a daringly original idea that no one has even attempted it since…the last administration.
Back in 2020, Donald Trump negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that would have seen the United States leave Afghanistan about a week from now on May 1. When Biden entered the Oval Office, he was faced with a decision: whether or not to stick to Trump’s plan. He deliberated. He scratched his chin. He consulted with the government’s gigantic foreign policy bureaucracy, winning him plaudits from the fun-loving Washington Post. He even suggested fresh diplomatic talks with the Taliban.
And then he announced his decision. The troops would still leave Afghanistan, only the withdrawal deadline would be moved forward to the deeply strategic and not at all political date of September 11.
Upon which the news media promptly exploded with jubilation. I don’t mean to sound peevish—I support withdrawing from Afghanistan no matter who gives the order—but reading the press coverage has sometimes made me feel like I’ve been blasted through a wormhole. The New York Times, for example, in its writeup on the announcement, reported that Biden “will have accomplished a goal that his two immediate predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, embraced but never completed.” Yes, except that Obama surged troops into Afghanistan, while Trump was in the process of pulling them out until he was interrupted by Biden, a bit of context the Times buried like a midnight edit to the “1619 Project.”
Surely Biden had some idea that the press would respond this way; surely too he isn’t above placing foreign policy downstream from politics. An official tells the Washington Post that his withdrawal decision is “not conditions-based,” meaning he didn’t delay ending the war to first improve the situation on the ground, which would have been impossible at any rate. Biden claims there were logistical difficulties meeting Trump’s earlier deadline, and that’s probably true. But what he’s ultimately trying to do is to make this withdrawal his own. Biden wants to be the president who ended America’s longest war, a policy that’s popular among the public. That means fully appropriating the effort from the last administration, pullout date and all.
It’s enough to make you think he cares more about legacy-obsessed politicking than he does about unity. Yet while the right-wing id in me could easily sneer for the rest of this column, even I can admit that Biden deserves credit where it’s due. (Also it’s not like this is the first time he’s copycatted someone. Okay, now I’m done.)
The president, let’s not forget, was under enormous pressure to reverse Trump’s withdrawal initiative. Biden is no kind of doctrinaire hawk—he attempted to dissuade Obama from invading Libya, for example—but he is as acclimated to the malarial Washington ecosystem as anyone you’re likely to find. He’s first and foremost a process-oriented liberal, which the foreign policy establishment no doubt figured would make him far more pliable than his predecessor ever was.
And tried they did. Many of Biden’s advisors, including his generals, reportedly opposed any conditions-free withdrawal. The Afghanistan Study Group established by Congress gushed that “a sovereign, independent, democratic Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors that is not a threat to international security” could still be a reality if only America would stay. Lindsey Graham made his usual pterodactyl noises.
Even more daunting for Biden was the very real possibility that the Taliban could take control of Afghanistan if America left. While the group has abided by the ceasefire insofar as it (mostly) hasn’t attacked American troops, it has continued its overall military push across the country. Its fighters have surrounded Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, which will likely soon fall now that the difficult Afghan winter is over. Despite endless training and investment by the United States, no one seriously thinks the country can be defended by its security forces, which are plagued by corruption and logistical banana peels. The inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan called them a “hopeless nightmare and a disaster.”
Given all this, it would have been easy for Biden to throw up his hands, declare he wasn’t about to risk another fall of Saigon, and latch the military to Afghanistan for another two decades and $2 trillion worth of Sisyphean boulder-rolling. He didn’t do that and consequently he deserves credit. Yes, it would have been better if he’d stuck as closely as possible to Trump’s plan. Yes, his let-me-think-about-it-oh-hey-why-don’t-we-wrap-up-on-9/11 posturing is annoying. But a delayed and somewhat cynical end to this senseless war is still an end all the same.
Now the trick will be to make sure he follows through. Biden is more sensitive to official Washington opinion than Trump ever was and the Blob will be murmuring in his ear. The military brass will gravely shake their heads; the Brookings Institution will warn of America’s damaged credibility. Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin will assail the president they once fawned over; the Washington Post editorial board will dress up dreary liberal internationalism as even drearier centrist pragmatism.
Yet the president must reject all that. He must instead listen to an American public and a military rank-and-file that long ago concluded there is nothing more we can do for Afghanistan.