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The Daily 202: On Afghanistan, Biden makes his biggest foreign policy gamble yet

with Mariana Alfaro

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Without declaring victory or hoisting a “mission accomplished” banner, President Biden today will announce an end to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, 20 years after it began amid warnings America risked sinking into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Biden, who once laid out his opposition to an Afghanistan troop surge in a four-page long-hand memo delivered to President Barack Obama by Thanksgiving weekend fax in 2009, will end an open-ended commitment his three predecessors would not.

In doing so, he will not only follow a campaign promise to end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” but risk the political consequences of defying 20 years of warnings from the Pentagon, where now has never been the right time to withdraw, despite dire internal warnings about the conflict’s trajectory.

This is not conditions-based,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday on the condition of anonymity. “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”

In late 2019, my colleague Craig Whitlock reported:

“A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

Biden’s decision will also implicitly confirm a lesson learned at considerable cost in the national trauma of Vietnam: America’s military has no global peer, but its ability to reshape a country and defeat a determined local enemy is limited.

My colleague Greg Jaffe judges that conclusion might be true, but “fails to recognize the missed opportunities, the blunders and even some of the successes of the longest war in American history, according to senior military officers who fought in the conflict and civilian officials who tried to rebuild Afghanistan.”

Biden’s bet is the United States can meet its top national security goal in Afghanistan preventing the country from again being a springboard for terrorists to strike U.S. interests and allies without boots on the ground.

The decision also highlights the consensus shift inside Washington’s national security establishment toward rivals like China and Russia as the top national security concern, away from the focus on terrorism since 9/11.

U.S. and NATO  forces will withdraw from Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11, 2021, the official said, though American support for fragile efforts to broker peace between the Taliban and the Kabul government will continue.

But what we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process,” the official said. (The U.S. military will retain a small footprint in Afghanistan to protect American diplomats there.)

When President George W. Bush announced the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan on Oct.7 2001, he did not say when and how the country would know the mission there had been successful and Americans could come home. 

Since then, some 2,400 Americans have died in the conflict, and more than 20,000 have been wounded in a conflict estimated to have cost trillions of dollars.

Obama and President Donald Trump, who brought U.S. troop levels there down to 2,500 earlier this year, struggled to define what victory might look like if America and its allies could ever break the military stalemate on the ground, something Biden concluded could not happen.

“There is no military viable end to the war in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “[Biden has] had that view for some time now, and he has to make decisions through the prism of what's in the interests of the national security of the United States.”

Biden telegraphed from the dawn of his young presidency he would not meet a May 1 withdrawal deadline under an early 2020 deal Trump struck with the Taliban — but stayed committed to finding a way out.

And the anonymous official suggested America had largely met the goals it set for itself 20 years ago toppling the Taliban and, in 2011, killing al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 attacks that plunged America into its longest shooting war.

“We went to Afghanistan to deliver justice to those who attacked us on September 11th and to disrupt terrorists seeking to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to attack the United States,” the official said. “We believe we achieved that objective some years ago.”

Still, the conflict created a new strategic imperative: Prevent the chaos in Afghanistan, and prospects of a Taliban resurgence, from turning the country once again into a launchpad for extremist attacks on U.S. interests.

The anonymous official said U.S. intelligence has concluded al-Qaeda lacks “an external plotting capability” to target the United States.

“But this is something that we have to focus on: Its potential for reemerging in the years ahead.”

To that end, Biden “will reposition our counterterrorism capabilities, retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat to the homeland from Afghanistan, and to hold the Taliban to its commitment to ensure al Qaeda does not once again threaten the United States or our interests or our allies.”

That could mean logistical support and, of course, money.

In little-noticed remarks last month in Washington, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, optimistically predicted his country’s forces could keep the Taliban at bay even if U.S. forces withdraw without a peace deal with the Taliban.

“I am confident that the Afghan security forces can hold on their own,” he said at the Hudson Institution think tank. “Our problem is not incapability anymore, and it is not a kinetic problem, it is a financial problem."

Quote of the day

“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake. It is a retreat in the face of an enemy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor. “Foreign terrorists will not leave the United States alone simply because our politicians have grown tired of taking the fight to them.”

What’s happening now

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Caron Nazario saw Eric Garner, his ‘uncle,’ die in police hands. Then officers assaulted him six years later,” by John Woodrow Cox and Michael Rosenwald: “For a moment, as the video played on his cellphone, Charles Welch thought he was about to watch a White police officer kill one of his family members for the second time. On the screen, he saw his wife’s cousin, Caron Nazario, a 27-year-old Army second lieutenant who, while still in uniform, had been pulled over by a pair of officers in Windsor, Va. Both men had drawn their weapons, and now both were screaming at Nazario, who struggled to understand what they wanted from him. ... [Welch] had seen a version of this video before. His wife, Raquel, was also a cousin to Eric Garner, the Black man who died on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014 after an officer wrapped him in a chokehold.”
  • Derek Chauvin’s witnesses include former Maryland medical examiner being sued over ‘chillingly similar’ case,” by Mark Berman and Ovetta Wiggins: “[Anton] Black encountered police on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the fall of 2018, when officers responding to a call about a possible kidnapping wrestled the 19-year-old to the ground. Video footage released later showed the officers in Greensboro, Md., struggling with Black before pinning him down. Black died, and no officers were charged in his death. ... Among the experts Chauvin’s defense is expected to call this week is [David Fowler], the former Maryland medical examiner who deemed Black’s death an accident."

… and beyond

  • DeSantis wants voters’ signatures to match. Would his pass the test?” by the Tampa Bay Times’s Steve Contorno: “If the Florida governor gets his way, mail-in ballot signatures would have to match the most recent signature on file with the state. His own signature history shows how autographs evolve.”
  • Florida is latest hot spot for anti-protest legislation,” by the American Prospect’s Amelia Pollard: “This week, the Florida legislature is on the cusp of passing legislation that would make blocking traffic... Illegal. ... That legislation, HB1, is an anti-protest bill that expands the list of felony charges and minimum sentences that could be slapped on future protesters. And it’s now quickly making its way through the state Senate.”


At the table

Today, we’re lunching with Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, to get his perspective on vaccines and school reopenings. We spoke on Monday, before the latest news came out about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Knox: Some of my readers have expressed concerns about news reporting that the vaccines are effective for six months they have interpreted that to mean only six months. What should they know?

Jha: They should know that six months is a floor not a ceiling. They’re effective for at least six months and that’s because we only have six months of data. More realistically, these vaccines are going to be effective for at least a year and maybe multiple years.

We have six months of follow-up data because we’ve only had these vaccines around for a while. There’s nobody who’s going to have three years of data on these vaccines.

Knox: Anecdotally, there seems to be a lot of concern and confusion about whether getting vaccinated protects you from getting infected vs. getting sick, and whether a fully vaccinated person can still spread the virus. What do we know?

Jha: It’s frustrating. Here’s what people need to know. Our vaccines, all three of them, provide a high degree of protection against all the variants that we have so far not perfect, and some variants will cause some breakthrough infections, but they’re going to be infrequent. All the vaccines protect people from getting sick and hospitalized, to a very high degree, 98 percent, 99 percent. Nothing in life is 100 percent, I suppose, except for taxes and death. And all the evidence so far says that these vaccines are terrific at reducing transmission. Again, probably not 100 percent, but they probably cut transmission 80 to 90 percent, and possibly more than that.

So: Great protection against all the variants, near-perfect protection against severe illness and death, and very high degree of protection against transmission.

Knox: A few Trump voters have told me they don’t want anything to do with “an experimental vaccine.” Is there an argument, especially for healthy younger people, to hold off until we know more about long-term effects?

Jha: No. And here’s why: These vaccines have been tested now in hundreds of thousands of people. The truth is that, with all the vaccines we’ve ever created, any significant side effects, health consequences of vaccines, tend to show up in the days to weeks that follow. One of the reasons [the Food and Drug Administration]  asks for two months of follow-up before they would authorize [is] they knew millions of people would get it. 

I have no real concerns about long-term effects. That’s not how vaccines work. If they’re going to have a negative effect, you’ll see it in the weeks that follow at the most, maybe out to two months, but not much later than that. We’ve literally had tens of millions of people around the world who’ve been vaccinated for longer than that [and] we’ve not seen significant issues.

I don’t think there’s any concern for young people. And then the other thing I would say is we know young people can have long-term consequences of covid, including long-covid, neurological and psychiatric complications. To me this is a no-brainer.

Knox: You’ve long been an advocate for carefully reopening schools since last summer, I think. Has anything about the coronavirus variants made you rethink that?

Jha: No, at this point, we know so much about how to do it safely that as long as schools are implementing those safety precautions including universal masking, ventilation and now that teachers and staff are all vaccinated, I really do think we can open schools safely this spring.

Knox: I feel like the first time you and I talked about this, we were still debating mask-wearing and wiping down groceries. What would you tell readers about the evolving messages from public health officials?

Jha: I think the key point is that, with a novel virus, we’re going to learn and we’re going to change recommendations based on what we learn. That’s actually what you want. You don’t want people who are consistent to a fault.

The problem has been that some people have seen that evolution in communication as somehow a measure of inconsistency, or people don’t know what they’re doing.

In fact, science has been learning more and more about how this virus spreads it doesn’t spread through surfaces, it spreads through the air. And therefore, all the focus on wiping and deep-cleaning was largely misguided. But we didn’t know that, so it was perfectly reasonable to be making those arguments last March, April. It certainly is not reasonable to be making those arguments today.

The first 100 days

The White House is continuing its outreach to Congress on Biden’s infrastructure plan. 
  • “Ronald A. Klain, the White House chief of staff, and presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti will sit down with several members of the Problem Solvers Caucus this afternoon, according to two officials familiar with the meeting,” Seung Min Kim reports.
  • “Among lawmakers who will attend include the two leaders of the caucus – Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) – as well as Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), according to a White House official.”
Underserved communities will bear the brunt of the paused Johnson and Johnson rollout.
  • “Because the single-shot option is favored for transient and hard-to-reach populations, the pause’s most immediate cost was exacted on those with the fewest other options,” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports. “That includes students, rural residents and people involved in shift work, throwing a new hurdle in front of the Biden administration’s efforts to introduce greater equity into the nation’s vaccination campaign. The places best able to address the change were those with abundant vaccine supply, newly underscoring the uneven nature of the rollout.”
  • Biden’s health officials, in pausing the J&J vaccine, aimed for transparency. Critics worry they overreacted. “Initially, some suggested the government could just issue a warning to consumers and doctors,” Laurie McGinley, Lena Sun and Frances Stead Sellers report. “They didn’t want to undermine confidence in vaccines given the danger of covid-19. But as they talked, two big worries emerged. They feared there might be additional cases of brain blood clots they didn’t know about. And what if the government didn’t act quickly, and as a result more people got the wrong diagnosis and treatment and were hurt or died? ... But Critics suggested they were overreacting, predicting the result would be fewer people getting vaccinated and more dying of covid-19.”
  • Columnist Leana Wen, a doctor who participated in the J&J trial, explains how she’s processing the news: “Federal health officials made exactly the right decision,” she writes. “With so much scrutiny on vaccine safety, an abundance of caution bolsters public confidence. ... In fact, I hope that people feel even more reassured about these vaccines, because they are seeing how careful our regulatory agencies are.”
  • Our colleagues Lenny Bernstein and Allyson Chiu explain what you should do if you’ve received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. (Step 1: Don’t panic).
Most Americans approve of how Biden and state governors are handling the virus. 
  • A 62 percent majority says Biden is doing a good job handling the outbreak according to a Monmouth University poll, and the same percentage gave positive marks for their state’s governor, Emily Guskin reports.
Biden is nominating Robert Santos, one of the country’s leading statisticians, as head of the U.S. Census Bureau. 
  • “If confirmed by the Senate, Santos, who is Latinx, would be the first permanent director of color for the federal government's largest statistical agency,” NPR reports. “Depending on the timing of a confirmation, Santos could finish the term left open by former Director Steven Dillingham that is ending this year. Dillingham was the Trump-appointed director who quit in January after whistleblowers filed complaints about Dillingham's role in trying to rush out an incomplete data report on noncitizens.”

U.S. House representation by state, visualized

The U.S. population has grown over time, but the number of seats has stayed the same. As a result, the average lawmaker now represents more Americans while the gap between the most and least represented states has grown. See why your state might lose representation after the Census is released:


Women detailed drug use, sex and payments after late-night parties with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and others. 
  • “The first thing some of the women were asked to do when they got to the house parties in the gated community in suburban Orlando was to put away their cellphones, according to two women in attendance” who spoke to CNN's David Shortell and Paula Reid.
  • “The men inside, a who's who of local Republican officials that often included Rep. Matt Gaetz, did not want the night's activities documented. The partygoers … mingled and shared drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. Some had sex. Gaetz, the brash Republican, liked to discuss politics, said one of the women. He behaved like a ‘frat type of party boy,’ she said, sometimes taking pills she believed were recreational drugs.”
  • “After some parties, money would change hands. According to receipts reviewed by CNN, Gaetz and his associate Joel Greenberg, a former county tax commissioner indicted last year on multiple federal charges, used digital payment applications to send hundreds of dollars to at least one woman who attended the parties. The receipts viewed by CNN record payments that took place between 2018 and 2019 and include at least one that indicated in a label that it was to compensate for travel.” Greenberg is said to be cooperating with prosecutors in the Justice Department’s investigation of Gaetz.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) sidestepped a question about whether he retains confidence in Gaetz. 
  • “If something’s going on, obviously, we’ll find out about it,” Scalise said at a news conference this morning that largely focused on other issues. “Right now. It’s hard to speculate on rumors.”
  • “If something really formal happened from Justice, we would, of course, react and take action,” Scalise added, per John Wagner. Scalise said he has yet to talk to Gaetz “to get his, you know, get his explanation of what’s been alleged, serious things alleged.”
A veteran air force pilot is hoping to oust Gaetz in the Republican primary.  
  • “The pilot, Bryan Jones, serves as the director of operations for the Florida air national guard headquarters detachment 2 based out of Hurlburt Field,” the Guardian’s Daniel Strauss reports. “Jones is being advised by consultants from New Politics, a bipartisan consulting firm that specializes in recruiting and boosting civil servants running for office."

Hot on the left

“Warren Buffett, Target, Netflix join group of companies and top executives in new statement opposing limits on voting rights,” Todd Frankel and Jena McGregor report: “The letter included support from recognizable corporate names such as Target, Netflix, Bank of America, Facebook, Cisco, Twitter, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Mastercard, American Airlines, United Airlines and Vanguard, as well as prominent people such as investor Warren Buffett, law firms and nonprofit organizations. But the statement was also notable for the names that were missing, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola — two companies that earlier this month were among the first to oppose new voting rules in their home state of Georgia.” 

Hot on the right

Former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory this morning announced a Republican primary bid for the state’s open Senate seat next year, highlighting the role that Vice President Harris plays in the chamber in a video he used to launch his candidacy, John Wagner reports. The Senate’s 50-50 split, he said, puts Harris “in charge, giving the left everything they want to radically change America for generations to come.”  

Today in Washington

Biden will deliver remarks on his Afghanistan plans today at 2:15 p.m., before visiting Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery at 3:05 p.m. 

Harris held a virtual “roundtable” with experts on the Northern Triangle today at 10 a.m. as part of her new charge to address immigration at the border. 

The House is expected to vote today on legislation that would create a commission to study whether to pay reparations to descendants of enslaved people. 

The Senate is expected to today move ahead a rare bipartisan effort aimed at investigating and halting hate crimes against Asian Americans amid the pandemic. 

Looking ahead: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invited Biden to address a joint session of Congress on April 28. 

In closing

Comedian and veterans’ advocate Jon Stewart explained to Fox News’s Martha MacCallum how Biden’s spending on veterans who were affected by “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan works: 

And YouGov asked Americans to rank all 50 U.S. states and D.C. from “best to worst.” Here’s what happened: