Biden signals a new American way of war with Afghan withdrawal

When asked whether members of Joe Biden’s national security team disagreed with his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, the White House press secretary acknowledged there had been dissent.

“[T]he president welcomed the advice, welcomed at times disagreement about what the appropriate path forward should be,” Jen Psaki said on Wednesday, adding that Biden had asked his national security team “not to sugarcoat it”.

Psaki may have been underplaying their opposition. Over nearly two decades, influential military strategists in Washington and senior officers at the Pentagon have used Afghanistan to change the way the American armed forces fights its wars, and steadfastly resisted efforts to withdraw without signs Kabul could stand on its own.

Discarding Cold War-era doctrines focused on set-piece manoeuvre warfare, top US commanders in Afghanistan like generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal turned the US army into a counterinsurgency force, which needed boots on the ground to pacify the local populace.

Biden fought that troop-heavy strategy since his early days as vice-president more than a decade ago, where he lost out to the military brass in then-President Barack Obama’s Afghan war review.

But on Wednesday, Biden made clear his views have never changed. Asked as he visited the graves of America’s recent war dead if it had been a hard decision to make, the US president said: “No it wasn’t. It was absolutely clear. Absolutely clear.”

The US president’s certainty is not shared by those who disagreed with him a decade ago, some of whom are back in his own administration.

Biden’s own CIA director Bill Burns told the Senate this week that a decision to pull out would hamper US intelligence efforts trained on the threat from Islamist groups in the region, including some who can trace their lineage back to the September 11, 2001 attacks masterminded on Afghan soil.

“When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns told the Senate intelligence committee.

But even Biden’s critics — which include counterinsurgents such as Petraeus as well as some liberal internationalists advocating nation-building and interventionist rightwing hawks — acknowledge he has never wavered.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior adviser to the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group which recommended extending the US presence earlier this year, said Biden was taking on retired generals such as McChrystal and Petraeus who had “star power” as well “the conventional wisdom of the establishment”.

“It wasn’t so much generals versus civilians as one worldview versus another,” he said, adding Pentagon officials, uniformed military and civilian advisers had also been divided over the troop surge at the time.

“From the very beginning, you may recall, I never thought we were there to somehow unify . . . Afghanistan,” Biden said during Wednesday’s cemetery visit. “It’s never been done. It’s never been done.”

The president’s decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan by September 11 — the 20th anniversary of the attacks — achieves something both of his predecessors failed to achieve.

By acceding to the military’s insistence to a “conditions-based withdrawal”, Obama and Donald Trump found themselves outflanked by the uniformed military, forced to keep troops on the ground until conditions changed to the generals’ liking.

Biden made clear he viewed the conditions-based criteria as a way for America to continue “the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan”.

Unlike Obama and Trump, who were comparatively new to Washington’s foreign policy debates when they took office, longtime observers say Biden escaped being steamrollered by Washington’s foreign policy establishment thanks to his long foreign policy pedigree, including as lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years.

“President Biden has been to this rodeo before,” said Frederick Kagan, an early advocate for a counterinsurgency strategy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who served as a civilian adviser to McChrystal in Afghanistan.

Despite campaigning on a US withdrawal, Trump sent an additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2017 before bringing the numbers down to 2,500 by the end of his term in office.

“I think Trump was turned around: I think it’s clear that he did want to order all the forces out and then ended up bowing to contrary advice,” added Kagan, who called Biden’s decision “catastrophic”.

At the roots of Biden’s policy has been the strict limits to what he thought the US could and should achieve militarily. Instead of a nationwide counterinsurgency, he has long argued for tactics focused solely on ending any safe haven for terrorists and hunting down September 11 organiser Osama bin Laden.

According to the diaries of Richard Holbrooke, the state department’s top Afghan hand in 2009-10, partially published in a 2019 biography by George Packer, Biden believed the US military had been given a remit that was beyond its competence, including social goals such as gender rights.

“When I mentioned the women’s issue [in Afghanistan], Biden erupted. Almost rising from his chair, he said, ‘I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for’.”

Biden confirmed Holbrooke’s recollection in an interview last year with CBS, adding he bore “zero responsibility” for the fate of women in the country should the Taliban return to power as a result of US withdrawal.

“He can take the hit,” said Joe Cirincione, a longtime antiwar campaigner who is now at the Quincy Institute, of the mounting political criticism of Biden’s decision. “He is confident enough in himself.”

Cirincione also said policymakers should not underestimate the president’s personal experience, something Biden touched on in announcing his decision: “I’m the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serve in a war zone.”

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