WASHINGTON – President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 is based on his belief that there is no room for 20 years of failed efforts to rebuild the country, especially when he wants the United States to focus on transformational economic and social agenda at home and other rapidly evolving threats from abroad.
Although Mr. Biden would never use that term, leaving Afghanistan is part of his own version of “America First,” which is drastically different from how his predecessor Donald J. Trump used the phrase. His years in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president convinced him that the United States-led effort in Afghanistan was destined to collapse.
During the Obama administration, Mr. Biden lost arguments to reduce the U.S. presence to a minimal counterterrorism force. But after less than three months in the presidency, Mr. Biden has come to the conclusion that only a complete withdrawal – unrelated to political conditions on the ground – will divert America’s attention from the conflict of the past two decades in favor of the very different species it expects in the next two.
He defined the goals of his presidency as freeing the country from the grip of a virus that is turning into new variants, seizing the opportunity to boost economic competitiveness vis-à-vis China and proving to the world that American democracy can still cope with great challenges.
And in that vision, the priorities are fighting poverty and racial inequality and increasing investment in broadband, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and 5G communications – without using the military to support the government of President Ashraf Ghani. That means thinking about infrastructure instead of protecting forces and defending commercial supply chains instead of military lines.
Mr. Biden’s approach carries clear risks. An annual worldwide threat assessment released by his intelligence chiefs on Tuesday morning, as news of his decision leaked, explicitly warned that “the Afghan government will fight to keep the Taliban at bay” if the U.S. coalition withdraws. Administration officials said that raised the specter of something related the fall of Saigon in 1975, after the United States gave up another reckless war.
But Mr Biden’s decision clearly shows his belief that fighting a growing China takes precedence over the idea that with just a few years in Afghanistan and a few billion more dollars, the United States could achieve with a few thousand troops what it could not achieve with hundreds of thousands or more. of $ 2 trillion already poured into two decades of warfare and nation-building.
After Mr. Biden told a news conference last month that “We need to prove that democracy works,” he went on to describe a foreign policy that was aimed at restoring America’s reputation for great things. “China has been investing in us for a long time,” the president remarked, “because their plan is to own that future.”
Indeed, no one celebrated American participation in Afghanistan or Iraq more than China’s – conflicts that kept Americans vigilant at night and taking control of remote provinces, while Beijing focused on expanding its influence in regions of the world where America was once unquestioned. dominant force.
A few years ago, at China Central School, a recently retired Chinese military official said his colleagues were amazed at how the United States was wasting its funds.
On Tuesday, one of Mr Biden’s top advisers suggested the president had come to the same conclusion. To address the threats and challenges of 2021, not those of 2001, he said, “it requires us to close the book on the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.”
But that choice comes with significant risks, which took him two and a half months and some controversial arguments with the Pentagon leadership.
His advisers have admitted that the president will take the blame if Afghanistan falls into the hands of the Taliban or, much more worryingly, becomes a haven for terrorists with the intention of attacking the United States.
Critics of Mr. Biden wasted no time painting the decision as a sign of the United States in retreat, ignoring that just six months ago Mr. Trump said, it turned out wrongly, that he would have all American troops home for Christmas.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also tried to persuade Mr. Trump to stay, called the decision “stupider than dirt and damn dangerous.”
And while Democrats generally supported it, some expressed concern about maintaining the ability to deal militarily with the emergence of the threat from Afghanistan.
“There is no easy answer,” said Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and an influential voice on the Armed Forces Committee. The key, he said, would be “a very decisive counterterrorism operation.”
But as Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council under Mr Trump, said, the difficult question is to place those forces anywhere – and how to return them to enemy territory when needed.
“Bringing them back to Afghanistan to deal with terrorist groups is becoming increasingly difficult as the Taliban take over larger parts of the country,” said Ms. Curtis, now at the Center for the New American Security.
“It shouldn’t be either-or,” she added. “We should be able to maintain a certain level of strength in Afghanistan, because we can deal with more than one threat at the same time.”
That was not the position of her boss, Mr. Trump, who wanted to get out of Afghanistan but never put forward a plan.
When historians look back at this point, they might conclude that Mr. Biden’s decision was predestined.
The place is not called the graveyard of empires for no reason: the British withdrew in 1842, after an expedition in which their textbooks called it a “disaster in Afghanistan”, and the Soviets in 1989, after a decade of death and frustration. What Soviet leaders learned in a decade, four American presidents learned in two.
Mr. Biden moved early on the idea of heading for exits, although he lost an argument in 2009, during the first review of President Barack Obama’s policies. In his memoirs, Mr. Obama recalled his vice president warning him at the time of an “unbridled” U.S. military that was “dragging the country deeper into a futile, wildly expensive state-building exercise.”
Mr Biden still believes this, but has now gone a step further by rejecting the Pentagon’s insistence that any withdrawal be “conditional” – in other words, reversible if it appears that the Afghan government risks losing control.
In short, Mr. Biden declares that the war is over – no matter what, and although the United States is leaving with most of its goals unfulfilled, Afghan stability is deeply threatened. If there is again no terrorist attack launched from Afghan territory, no echo of 9/11 may be considered to have been Mr. Biden’s correct bet.
In the end, the argument that won the day was that the future of Kenosh was more important than the defense of Kabul. And if Mr. Biden can really steer the country on far greater strategic challenges – in space and cyberspace, against failing forces like Russia and rising ones like China – he will finally move the country out of its fixation after 9/11, where counterterrorism is surpassed any other foreign policy and internal imperative.
That would be a real change in the way Americans think about the purpose of the country’s influence and power and the nature of national security.