The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Afghanistan debate, Biden’s instincts align with those of Trump

President Biden delivered remarks July 8 on the continued U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
President Biden delivered remarks July 8 on the continued U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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Since taking office, President Biden has raced to repudiate central elements of his predecessor’s “America First” approach to the world by rejoining an international climate pact, reaffirming commitments to NATO, elevating multilateralism and vowing to place human rights over earnings in global arms deals.

But in the handling of the United States’ longest war, Biden’s core instincts have aligned with those of former president Donald Trump — a skepticism of endless military deployments and a willingness to end those campaigns despite security concerns.

“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” Biden said in a White House address Thursday, defending his decision to end the U.S. military mission by the end of August. “It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.”

The administration’s scramble to execute a high-speed departure, and the president’s determination to push ahead despite the concern about a swift Taliban takeover, illustrate his mistrust of long-running counterterrorism operations and his desire to refocus government resources at home — disruptive beliefs that intersect with those of Trump even though the two men arrived at their positions from very different places.

Biden forcefully defends Afghan pullout despite Taliban gains

Those converging convictions are behind an outcome that Andrew Wilder, a veteran Afghanistan scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said many Afghans are describing as not safe nor orderly, as officials have labeled it, but as dangerous and hasty.

While the withdrawal plan the White House unveiled in April has been successful in averting U.S. casualties, Wilder said, “it’s leaving the [Afghan security forces] in a very difficult position, and they’re rapidly losing ground.”

Current and former officials have expressed growing fears as Taliban forces, emboldened by the American departure, make their most significant gains since they were routed after 9/11. The militants are besieging provincial capitals and seizing rural districts, often with little or no resistance from government troops. Anti-Taliban militiamen have vowed to rise up against the militants, fueling fears of another civil war, as happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

The accelerating Taliban offensive has also intensified concerns about the possible collapse of the Kabul government, which U.S. intelligence agencies have warned could happen in as few as six months.

While officials have framed the withdrawal decision as linked primarily to an agreement cemented with the Taliban in 2020 under Trump, it is equally rooted in Biden’s years of involvement in the United States’ post-9/11 wars from the Senate and the vice president’s office.

As a two-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was a leading figure in the congressional response to the 9/11 attacks, initially voting to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Obama administration, he argued against military leaders’ request for a major troop increase, recommending a lean counterterrorism mission instead. President Barack Obama ultimately heeded the Pentagon brass, bringing the troop level to 100,000 in a surge that generated important but short-lived gains.

When Trump took office in 2017, in contrast, he had no governing or foreign policy experience but had instead a penchant for making abrupt, unorthodox decisions, often via Twitter, and an innate suspicion of spending money in defense of foreign nations. No longer, he promised, would the United States be “the world’s policeman.”

Repeatedly, beginning with a review of South Asia policy in 2017, top aides sought to walk Trump away from a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by linking the U.S. presence there to the possibility of terrorist attacks on his watch.

Biden to pull all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021

In February 2020, Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan cemented a deal that bound Washington to withdrawal by May 2021 if the Taliban complied with certain conditions, including forgoing attacks on U.S. forces and breaking ties with al-Qaeda.

Biden and his aides have argued the administration had little choice but to pull out, in keeping with the Trump administration deal, because failing to do so would prompt the Taliban to renew attacks on foreign forces — which have been mostly paused since February 2020 — and risk more American lives.

“Once that agreement with the Taliban had been made, staying with a bare-minimum force was no longer possible,” Biden told reporters this week. “Let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more — how many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons — are you willing to risk?”

Some Afghanistan experts disagree, arguing the administration could have attempted to negotiate an extension to give peace talks more time to advance. Or, they have argued, Biden could have simply kept the small force of 2,500 troops there in defiance of the Taliban, especially since the militants have fallen short of the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal struck with Trump.

In recent years, U.S. forces have been mostly confined to bases, where they help coordinate operations and facilitate air support that is a crucial element of Afghans’ ability to keep the Taliban at bay.

“That’s a talking point but not a very convincing one,” said James Dobbins, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, referring to the argument that the Trump deal bound Biden to a swift departure.

In the weeks following Biden’s withdrawal announcement, pressure has mounted even from within his party to solidify plans to assist thousands of onetime interpreters who are endangered by the U.S. withdrawal. As of this week, officials were still trying to hammer out plans to airlift some of those former employees to third countries or U.S. territories while their visa applications to come to the United States are processed.

Taliban’s rapid advance puts Afghan cities at risk of being overtaken

The administration is also attempting to put in place arrangements for “over the horizon” counterinsurgent operations, which could include launching airstrikes from bases in the Persian Gulf or other areas if al-Qaeda or Islamic State militants rebound.

Dobbins said the scramble was not surprising, considering the short time frame between Biden’s inauguration and the May 1 deadline under Trump’s U.S.-Taliban deal.

Hugo Llorens, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul under Obama and Trump, said officials at the Defense and State departments may not have internalized the fact that U.S. forces, after so many false starts, could finally leave.

“The bureaucracy didn't expect it,” Llorens said. “They resisted President Trump, and they thought they could bring Biden around. It was a bureaucratic surprise.”

Analysts and former officials credited Biden for chairing an in-depth review of Afghanistan policy, one that allowed opponents of an immediate departure, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to make their case.

But Afghanistan “is unraveling more quickly than expected. They were hoping for what Henry Kissinger called a ‘decent interval,’ ” Dobbins said, referencing the Nixon-era hope for a substantial period between the U.S. exit from South Vietnam and its capitulation to the North. “They may not get it.”