No one can accuse U.S. President Joe Biden of making an uninformed decision in announcing the withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan later this year, almost 20 years after the launch of the “forever war” that has proved so wrenching for his country and its people.
Mr. Biden’s immediate predecessors in the White House – Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush – all came to office with no foreign-policy experience, and it showed. All three were at the mercy of Pentagon officials and defence secretaries whom they never fully trusted, but to whom they usually deferred because they feared making costly rookie errors.
Mr. Biden became commander-in-chief in January with more geopolitical experience under his belt than any president since Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general who led U.S. forces in Europe during the Second World War.
In 2001, as the chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee, Mr. Biden supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, making him a powerful Democratic ally as Mr. Bush dispatched thousands of U.S. troops to defeat the ruling Taliban, which had provided a haven for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers.
While the U.S. military invasion in Afghanistan succeeded in ousting the Taliban, the cost in U.S. lives and treasure proved increasingly hard to square for Mr. Biden – especially after Mr. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. U.S. and NATO forces (which included Canadians) struggled for years to bring stability to Afghanistan, leading to a loss of public support for the war back home.
By the time he was elected as Mr. Obama’s vice-president in 2008, Mr. Biden had totally soured on the Afghan mission. That put him at odds not only with the Pentagon generals who pushed Mr. Obama to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to launch a counterinsurgency effort, but with then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton and defence secretary Robert Gates.
By Mr. Obama’s own telling, his vice-president was the lone voice of dissent among the Pentagon, National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency officials he consulted before deciding to send 33,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in late 2009, bringing the total number of U.S. and other NATO-country soldiers on the ground there to around 140,000 by 2011.
“Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when the generals are trying to box in a new president,” Mr. Obama, writing in his recent memoir, recalls Mr. Biden telling him in 2009. “Don’t let them jam you.”
After losing that earlier battle to wind down the Afghan war, Mr. Biden got the last word last week by announcing he would bring home the remaining 2,500 U.S troops stationed in Afghanistan by Sept. 11. The symbolism of that date is lost on no one, as it marks the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the longest war in U.S. history.
Mr. Biden is defying Pentagon officials and his own Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, who have all warned him against a total withdrawal from Afghanistan. The bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group set up by the Trump administration also cautioned against removing all U.S. troops from the country, as Mr. Trump had vowed to do by May of this year.
“A complete withdrawal of our troops would allow the threat to re-emerge,” the group concluded in its final report in February. “In the long term, the United States must either maintain a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan or be assured that other verifiable mechanisms are in place to ensure that these [terrorist] groups cannot reconstitute.”
Mr. Biden’s CIA director, William Burns, has also warned that a total troop withdrawal would compromise intelligence collection critical to U.S. security interests. Most national-security experts seem to agree that a residual U.S. force in Afghanistan would serve as a deterrent to Taliban attempts to renege on a peace agreement negotiated under Mr. Trump.
Mr. Biden was still vice-president when the Islamic State rose to fill the void left by the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 to gain control over vast swaths of that country and Syria. The consequences of Mr. Obama’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Iraq in the runup to his re-election campaign will long tarnish his legacy. It certainly proved more costly than the alternative of maintaining a residual U.S. force in Iraq to protect the fragile gains made there over the previous eight years.
It is hard to believe that Mr. Biden, with all his experience, would risk making the same mistake in Afghanistan that Mr. Obama made in Iraq. But he has long been itching to put the generals in their place. Now that he can, he will.
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