I. "I could tell he was thinking of his own granddaughters."
US President Joe Biden was once determined to help Afghanistan get back on its feet – and in the early days he believed that so was former US President George W. Bush. In November 2001, Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sat in the Oval Office listening to Bush talk enthusiastically about an idea he had once denigrated: nation building.
The Taliban were on the run, relentlessly hit by US bombs, and the short war known as Operation Enduring Freedom was as good as won in just a month. The topic of discussion was what would happen to Afghanistan afterwards. Biden nodded in agreement when Bush insisted that this would not be like 1989, when the United States dumped the country like a used cartridge after years of supplying the mujahideen in their successful war against the Soviets, paving the way for the Taliban. Rule paved.
Biden advocated this idea: this time the United States had to stay. The President "spoke about the long-term commitment we must make," Biden recalled in an interview with me on December 20, 2001. "I said," Mr. President, it will cost billions of dollars. I think we need to have a multilateral force there. "And I think he and I mostly agree."
In truth, they weren't. In the following months, according to former aides, Biden was increasingly dismayed by Bush's rapid turn to Iraq and neglect of Afghanistan. Biden was emotionally invested in Afghanistan by most reports at the time. In January 2002 he was the first US Congressman to visit Kabul. He was taken to a new girls' school, an experience that touched him as such schools were banned under the Taliban rule, said former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who accompanied him on the visit. Biden's former Senate spokesman Norm Kurz, who was also on the trip, added, "I could tell he was thinking of his own young granddaughters."
In the early 2000s, Biden tried to convince the then US. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to do more to bring Afghanistan into the modern world. But Rumsfeld insisted on a "small footprint" and the occasional airborne counter-terrorism operation that cynics termed a "blow to blow" tactic. Rumsfeld simply didn't listen to Biden's arguments for increased aid and a US troop presence, Kurz recalled.
"He felt that you shouldn't go in and just kill people and leave," said Jonah Blank, another former Biden aide who accompanied him on this trip as the Senator's Afghanistan expert. "He was both morally and geopolitically of the opinion that if you invade a country and intervene militarily, you have the responsibility to leave it better than you found it."
But when Washington turned its attention to Iraq – and Biden eventually became one of those authorizing this war – things began to go seriously wrong in Afghanistan. The Taliban crawled back from the mountains and formed the Quetta Shura, the council of Taliban leaders across the border in Pakistan. By 2004, when the Taliban insurgency began again in earnest, the United States was completely consumed by its own uprising in Iraq. Today things are completely out of control. The resurgent Taliban, funded by opium sales and Pakistani intelligence, are believed to have influence or control over at least half of the country. They can even strike freely in the Afghan capital, Kabul, especially since the militant group has deeply infiltrated the demoralized Afghan national security forces.
II. "You don't end a war by withdrawing your forces."
Now a disaffected Biden has taken a completely different point of view – he is returning to an approach that is uncomfortably similar to Bush's and Rumsfeld's. This week, Biden announced that all U.S. forces would withdraw by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. NATO immediately followed Biden's lead on Wednesday, saying its roughly 7,000 non-US forces in Afghanistan would depart within a few months.
"I am now the fourth President of the United States to preside over the American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not transfer this responsibility to a fifth," Biden said in a White House speech on Wednesday. "Our diplomatic and humanitarian work continues, "he added without being specific.
But no one has any illusions about what will be at least a partial return of Taliban power, even though Biden sent US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghanistan the day after his speech to confirm America's "continued commitment" to the US promise elected Afghan government. The first to suffer from this could be girls and women who, in their previous incarnation, kept the Taliban away from schools and the public from 1996-2001. Women were also forced to wear burqas, an all-encompassing piece of clothing that even hid their faces.
Some members of the Pentagon and the US intelligence services fear that a premature declaration of success and a too hasty withdrawal could expose Biden to the same criticisms that former US President Barack Obama suffered when he left Iraq in 2011 (on Biden's advice) just to see Islamic State fill the vacuum. Others fear that Biden's decision could potentially leave the United States in a similar place as it did before 9/11: in front of a Taliban-dominated host nation for al-Qaeda. Despite other promises, many experts believe the Taliban continue to have a close relationship with the remnants of the terrorist group.
Crocker, who served twice as ambassador to Afghanistan, said he thinks the normally clear-eyed Biden engages in “magical thinking” about Afghanistan – especially when he believes Washington still has an impact on the Taliban.
For starters, the Afghan peace talks are now doomed, said Crocker, who recently retired as one of the United States' most respected diplomats. "The Taliban have no incentive to negotiate anything," he said. Turkey announced earlier this week that representatives from both the Afghan government and the Taliban would continue talks in Istanbul later this month, but Blinken admitted that there was no "final" response from the Taliban to their participation as of Thursday . And on Wednesday, Biden's own CIA director, William Burns, told Congress, "When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government's ability to collect and respond to threats will decline." It's just a fact. "
"I think Biden will look back and regret making that decision and speech," said Crocker. "You don't end a war by withdrawing your forces. The war goes on without you."
III. "This dinner is over."
What has changed for Biden? According to reports from several people who know the president well, he is at the end of a long period of deepening disillusionment with Afghanistan, a process that began with the Afghan leader installed by Washington in the early 2000s, Hamid Karzai.
Over time, Biden came to believe that because of endemic corruption, the United States was pouring billions of dollars – and nearly 2,500 US deaths and more than 20,000 wounded – into a nation that was irretrievably backward and broken, and ruled by medieval warlords became fundamentalist sensitivity. On Friday, Brown University's Costs of War Project reported that the war has cost a total of $ 2.26 trillion since the United States invaded on October 7, 2001. According to a report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan last fall, "waste, fraud, and abuse" has cost the United States at least $ 19 billion in reconstruction money in Afghanistan since 2002 – about 30 percent of what Congress invested and audited Amount.
"I think it was a gradual process between 2002 and 2009," said Blank, "as it became clearer that Karzai was not taking civilian leadership. Biden's reluctance intensified in 2008-2009."
In February 2008, Biden traveled again to Afghanistan with his close Senate colleagues John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and was invited to his palace for dinner with Karzai. The three Senate heavyweights wanted to tackle corruption in Karzai's government, including runaway transplants and alleged drug connections. After Karzai denied such problems existed, an angry Biden threw down his napkin, slapped his hand on the table, and went out and said, "This dinner is over."
"The big break for him came in January 2009, when he made his only trip as elected Vice President," said Blank. Believing that Afghanistan's stabilization was hopeless, Biden was the only high-ranking official to argue early in the Obama administration that another "surge" in troops would be a waste. As Obama wrote in his recent essay, A Promised Land, Biden expressed little confidence in the reliability of the Afghan government under Karzai and later under current President Ashraf Ghani.
"Whatever the mix of reasons, he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous swamp and asked me to postpone an operation," wrote Obama. Biden initially lost this debate: Obama increased the US troop strength to almost 100,000 soldiers. But then Obama began to cut dramatically in his second term when the Pentagon's counterinsurgency strategy – with humanitarian aid and a multi-billion dollar military policy to "clear, hold and build" cities and towns – won hearts and minds most of the cases badly failed parts of the country, which seem to justify Biden's skeptical advice.
Even before he became Vice President, Biden urged Obama to define an "end point". At a hearing with then Iraqi commander, General David Petraeus, in spring 2008, Biden advised Obama to lower expectations of what Iraq might look like after the US withdrawal – and this approach later shaped both approaches for Afghanistan. Obama, a freshman Senator who was running for president at the time, received media praise for telling Petraeus, "If you have limited resources, you need to be precise and humble about your goals. I am not suggesting that all of our troops should I'm trying to get to an end point. "Biden later told me that the language used by Obama was written by him behind the scenes:" He asked my advice, "Biden explained.
Biden also became suspicious of the Pentagon's endless arguments over waiting for the right "conditions" before withdrawing. As the President indicated in his speech on Wednesday, he has simply listened to the same speech for too many years. Biden noted that NATO issued a statement in 2014 confirming that the Afghan security forces will take responsibility for the country's security by the end of this year. That didn't really happen either. US special operations and NATO forces often led the fight despite nominally "advising" the Afghan armed forces.
"So when will it be the right time to leave?" Asked Biden. "Another year? Another two years? Another ten years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more on the trillion we've already spent? Not now? That's how we got here."
Blank already said in the early days that Biden saw the need for a persistent anti-terrorist approach in addition to the school openings. "He wasn't from the neo-conservative school," said Blank. "He never thought that we would have to stay there for 20 years and that we wouldn't have done our job if we hadn't made a little bit of America."
When he became president, Biden quickly signaled his intentions as he carried on former US President Donald Trump's envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. Last year, Khalilzad negotiated a controversial agreement with the Taliban: US troops would leave by May 1 to reaffirm the Taliban's commitment to deny Al-Qaeda and begin peace talks with an Afghan delegation. The Taliban have largely failed to keep these promises, although Biden says US withdrawal will begin on May 1st anyway. During the first few weeks of Biden's presidency, Crocker and others said there was an internal debate about the adoption of the pact. Before Blinken was confirmed by the Senate, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called his counterpart in Kabul, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, and reiterated Biden's intention to work with the Afghan government and "review" Khalilzad's deal.
That position seemed to be shifting after Blinken, who had been with Biden on his Afghanistan odyssey all the time since serving as director of staff on the Foreign Relations Committee, stepped aboard. Last month Blinken sent a rather undiplomatic and compelling letter to Ghani, who was re-elected in 2019 and proposed that power be shared with the Taliban in a "new, inclusive" government. The letter itself was a conspicuous violation of the protocol, since Blinken as State Secretary is not supposed to address a head of state as being of equal value.
In his speech this week, Biden confirmed the second guessers. "I know there are many who will loudly insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust US military presence as leverage," he said. “We gave this argument a decade. It has never been effective, not when we had 98,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and not when we were only a few thousand. "
Biden's announcement could also hasten the end of "forever wars" against other terrorist groups around the world such as Islamic State if they are no longer seen as a strategic threat to the United States. In his speech, the president cited the rise of new challenges such as China and global health and said, "We will be much more impressive to our adversaries and competitors in the long run if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20."
In the end, Biden said, his decision was about ending the unnecessary sacrifice of young Americans like his late son Beau, who served in Iraq and whom he mentioned in his speech.
"The war in Afghanistan should never be a multigenerational enterprise," he said. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved these goals. (Osama) Bin Laden is dead and Al-Qaeda is demoted in Afghanistan. And it's time to end the war forever. "