In withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Biden did not renounce using force there. He merely completed the job started by President George W. Bush and his successors: converting the war on terrorism from a conventional military venture to a global operation conducted by such methods as drone strikes, Special Operations raids and standoff missiles.
True, Bush allowed troop deployments to rise in Afghanistan across his two terms: A force of some 2,500 in December 2001 had climbed to 25,000 by December 2007. Still, as his administration prioritized an even more misbegotten war in Iraq, it also began experimenting with drones to prosecute the conflict in Afghanistan and in borderlands just beyond.
Once in office, President Barack Obama — following the advice of counterinsurgent war specialists — attempted a “surge,” briefly bringing the total number of troops to 100,000. By his second term, though, he had resolved to withdraw entirely and rapidly downsized the force. He even announced, on Dec. 28, 2014, that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” But the missile and bomb strikes continued, as The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock has written — a total of 2,284 in 2015 and 2016. Even as Obama insisted that Americans were serving only in “noncombat” roles as trainers and advisers, they were taking part in raids on al-Qaeda and “associated forces,” which could include the Taliban.
Approving 10 times as many drone strikes as the roughly 60 under Bush’s watch, Obama also expanded his predecessor’s light- and no-footprint war to a host of new places: His administration set records every year in the number of countries visited by small teams of U.S. Special Forces, from about 75 in 2010 to 138 six years later. As the surge rose and fell in Afghanistan, the president sent drones and Special Forces units in growing numbers beyond the Pakistan borderlands to Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere in what were in effect new wars.
Obama eventually reversed his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and left about 8,400 in place when he departed office (still a paltry number, given the country’s size). It was left to Biden and President Donald Trump — the latter thwarted by bureaucratic resistance (and his own incompetence and indecisiveness), even as he expanded drone strikes and Special Forces deployments worldwide — to finish the task of withdrawal.
By this year, a rump force of only 2,500 to 3,500 troops remained. The alarming speed of the collapse of the Afghan government by no means implies that America could have snatched “victory” — whatever that means — from the jaws of defeat by leaving those troops in place. Trump had inked a deal calling for their exit, in exchange for a promise by the Taliban not to target them on the way out. Had Biden reneged, no one knows how long the rump force could have propped up the friendly government in Kabul.
Biden’s withdrawal of those final troops is clearly significant. But setting aside today’s self-regarding American conversation — across mainstream media, Twitter and the like — about where and when “we” went wrong in our attempt to free Afghanistan, we should recognize that their departure in no way extricates America from its ongoing, metastasizing war on terrorism. When Biden declared in April, “It is time to end the forever war,” he was referring to a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. But the phrase “forever war” is better used to describe the expansive American commitment to deploy force across the globe in the name of fighting terrorism, a commitment that is by no means ending. In his extraordinary speech defending his actions Monday, Biden made this very clear, distinguishing the “counterterrorism” that the United States reserves the right to conduct from the “counterinsurgency or nation-building” that it is giving up.
Our engagements since Sept. 11, 2001, quickly bled beyond America’s immediate incursion in Afghanistan, and they remain without any endpoint even with troops gone from the first place they set foot. And the legal authorities, military practices and political culture that went along with this development outlive the departure of troops from that one country. Indeed, the return of Taliban rule cements America’s long-standing shift to a counterterrorism strategy that abjures a heavy-footprint presence and relies on light-footprint Special Forces and no-footprint drones (and other long-distance weaponry).
Biden administration officials had promised that such an approach would work after the military’s official departure because they would secure drone basing rights close to Afghanistan (perhaps in Pakistan or former Soviet republics). Reporting suggests that the CIA is looking for somewhat more distant alternatives, too, stationing MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf region for reconnaissance and strikes.
As far back as 2019, Antony Blinken — now secretary of state — said on the “Intelligence Matters” podcast that he backed efforts to “cut the cord” with Afghanistan. In 2020, a few weeks before the presidential election, Blinken forecast a new approach that would replace “large-scale open-ended deployment” with “discrete, small-scale, sustainable operations, maybe led by Special Forces,” paying deadly visits whenever necessary.
In other words, the United States has not given up the use of military force in Afghanistan. Precisely because the rationale of propping up a government has evaporated, that of interdicting terrorism has intensified. When threats start to emanate from Afghanistan (real or merely perceived), there is no doubt that Biden and his successors will act just as his predecessors have, there and elsewhere.
Beyond the genuine costs and humanitarian consequences of the fall of Kabul, which are not to be underestimated, the continuing reality is even scarier: The United States has over the past two decades created an all-embracing and endless war that knows few geographic bounds. Current events are likely to make that conflict even more permanent.