joe-biden” target=”_blank”>President Biden<said, and declared “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
That decision is a logical, realistic recognition that the United States has accomplished all it could in this war and ending it is the right call.
That’s not to say withdrawing will be easy, clean, or problem-free – and it will certainly have plenty of opposition, even in Washington. But as became painfully obvious as far back as 2010, the war was militarily unwinnable and should have been brought to a conclusion years ago. I would have preferred that Biden adhere to the May 1 withdrawal date negotiated by the Trump administration but getting out nonetheless remains the best way to end the painful losses and preserve American resources and security.
After my second combat deployment to Afghanistan, I chronicled the many specific reasons in 2012 why the war was militarily unwinnable.
Yet general after general, and later president after president, refused to acknowledge the obvious and instead sought to change the dynamics by altering the variables: first they tried increasing the number of troops, then piling yet more troops on top of that; other times they tried a reduced number of troops.
A whole series of mission changes and goal adjustments were tried. Nothing worked.
We just kept throwing financial and human resources at the problem in a vain attempt to extract a success out of what was clearly a militarily unattainable objective.
Twenty years of failure weren’t ordained, however. We could have had a different outcome.
When President Bush sent the military into Afghanistan in October 2001, he gave them clear, limited and attainable military objectives: These “carefully targeted actions,” the president said, “are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”
Those objectives were effectively accomplished by the summer of 2002. The Taliban was eradicated as a functioning entity and Al Qaeda had been decimated. Even as late as 2010, the U.S. estimated there to be fewer than 50 Al Qaeda fighters scattered over thousands of square miles of Afghan territory. But instead of taking the win and withdrawing our troops, Bush changed the mission in 2007 to a militarily unattainable objective: nation-building.
In February 2007 Bush announced the mission of America’s war in Afghanistan had drifted to becoming a requirement to “defeat the terrorists and establish a stable, moderate and democratic state that respects the rights of its citizens, governs its territory effectively, and is a reliable ally in this war against extremists and terrorists.”
Two years later, President Obama doubled-down on the nation-building efforts, ordering the military to “create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.” President Trump initially followed the inertia of his predecessors, but in his last year did set the stage for his successor to complete the full withdrawal.
Upon assuming office, Biden said he would conduct a policy review of the Afghan war before making a final decision. The Washington Post reported a person familiar with the internal deliberations of Biden’s review said, “if we break the May 1 deadline negotiated by the previous administration with no clear plan to exit, we will be back at war with the Taliban.”
Refusing to leave would have been tantamount to just extending the two decades of strategic failure into perpetuity. Biden has correctly assessed that such a course would harm American interests – and is now aligned with a majority of Americans who remain skeptical of the Afghan war.
A poll conducted by the Eurasia Group Foundation just before last year’s election found that almost two-thirds of both Trump and Biden backers supported the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1. In a separate poll last summer, upward of 75% of Americans were in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
There will likely be small but vocal opposition to this decision, with many citing fears of a new 9/11 if Biden withdraws. The truth, however, as I detailed in a Defense Priorities explainer last year, is that Afghanistan was little more than incidental to the 2001 terrorist attack against the U.S. (most of the operational planning took place in Germany and here in the U.S.).
Even after the withdrawal is complete, we will continue to keep America safe from terrorist attacks with our powerful ability to identify and strike direct threats to our homeland – no matter where in the world the threat originates.
Trump deserves credit for laying the groundwork for the withdrawal and Biden will deserve credit for bringing the troops home. The 20th anniversary of the event that started the war is an appropriate, but overdue, date to end it.