During his first mandate, former U.S. president Barack Obama liked to distinguish between America’s “war of necessity” in Afghanistan and its “war of choice” in Iraq.
Mr. Obama promised to end the “dumb” war in Iraq, initiated by George W. Bush on the false premise that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and called the fight in Afghanistan “a war we have to win.”
Mr. Obama’s vice-president at the time, Joe Biden, had by then already come to view both conflicts as dumb wars that drained America’s military resources, sapped its morale and dragged on aimlessly. Was he right then?
On Wednesday, a new Brown University report estimated the costs tied to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria since 2001 at more than US$8-trillion, including direct military spending and future obligations for veteran benefits and care.
And if President Joe Biden is to be believed, most of that spending has been in vain.
“If we had been attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, from Yemen instead of Afghanistan, would we have ever gone to war in Afghanistan – even though the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in 2001?” Mr. Biden asked Tuesday. “I believe the honest answer is no.”
A hypothetical question such as this has no purpose other than to distract attention from the tragic consequences – in the short-term, at least – of Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31. It dishonours the sacrifice of the thousands of U.S., Canadian and NATO soldiers – and tens of thousands of Afghan troops and civilians – who lost their lives seeking to end the threat of Islamic terrorism. And it mocks Afghans who now feel betrayed by their fickle American ally.
That Operation Enduring Freedom evolved into one of “nation-building” had nothing to do with mission creep. It reflected the realization that without a stable Afghan government and modern army, there would be no way to keep the terrorist threat at bay without far more Western forces occupying Afghanistan indefinitely.
But dismissing the progress made in Afghanistan serves Mr. Biden’s purposes as he seeks to direct his country’s energies toward tackling the geopolitical threats posed by a rising China and a mischief-making Russia.
Still, the decision Mr. Biden faced in Afghanistan was not, as he framed it, between “leaving or escalating.” This was not, as he characterized it, a choice between following through on the deal former president Donald Trump had negotiated with the Taliban and committing “tens of thousands more troops going back to war.”
“There was a 3rd choice,” Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass tweeted after Mr. Biden’s remarks: “to stay as we were as costs of [military] presence had gone down [because] of previous troop reductions & end of combat [operations].”
Mr. Biden’s own Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, had argued for keeping a residual force of 3,000 to 4,500 U.S. troops to support the Afghan army and deter the Taliban from overrunning the country. We will now never know if such a strategy could have worked. But the President precipitated the fall of the Afghan government by announcing a deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in advance. Afghan soldiers could see the writing on the wall.
“It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months,” General Sami Sadat, a commander in the Afghan National Army, wrote last week in a New York Times op-ed. “Losing combat logistical support that the United States had provided for years crippled us, as did a lack of clear guidance from U.S. and Afghan leadership.”
Mr. Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But he was forced to send thousands of soldiers back to the region in 2014 as the Islamic State captured vast swaths of Iraq and Syria after the earlier withdrawal. Mr. Biden is betting he will not face a similar situation in Afghanistan. Let’s hope he is right.
In July, Mr. Biden reached a deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year. The coming months will tell whether he will be able to adhere to that plan, given Pentagon concerns about Iraq falling under the influence of Iran. But Mr. Biden appears determined to follow through.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he insisted on Tuesday. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
The world will see about that.
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