Biden Finally Got to Say No to the Generals

By Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Washington. She co-wrote, with Peter Baker, “The Man Who Ran Washington.”

On Wednesday, Joe Biden announced the close of the two-decade-long American war in Afghanistan, giving the U.S. military a deadline of the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to withdraw all remaining troops. “It’s time to end the Forever War,” he said, in a speech that was both deeply personal and politically emphatic. Speaking from the White House Treaty Room, where George W. Bush had declared the start of the fight, to root out Al Qaeda and its Taliban enablers, Biden declared that there would be no more extensions of the American military presence, rebuffing pleas of the teetering, pro-Western Afghan government and his own generals. It’s finally, really, for-better-or-worse over. I guess this is how eras end: not with a culminating battle or some movie-thriller crescendo but with a Tuesday-morning leak to the Washington Post and, a day later, a fifteen-minute Presidential speech confirming the historic decision.

Biden pulled the plug in an unsentimental, sober address, with the only passionate notes reserved for the U.S. military personnel who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the two decades, including his late son Beau. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” he said. The President seemed genuinely sick and tired of the endless pleas for just a little more time. “So when will it be the right moment to leave?” he said, pointedly summarizing the arguments that he had dismissed. “One more year? Two more years? Ten more years?” he asked.

On Wednesday, he made the case that the U.S. had long since accomplished its original objectives of neutralizing the Al Qaeda threat from Afghan territory and bringing justice to the 9/11 perpetrator Osama bin Laden. But no amount of clear-eyed argument from Biden could erase the embarrassing historical fact that Afghanistan has now banished another superpower. America did not lose the war—not exactly—but it did not win, either. And, as Biden pointed out, it could never, in recent years, provide a plausible explanation of what achieving its goals would look like.

Many questions remain, of course: Will there be an iconic, helicopter-out-of-Saigon moment? (Answer: Not if the U.S. military can help it.) Will Afghanistan fall victim to the bad- or worst-case scenarios that experts have been warning about for all these years, from a renewed Taliban dictatorship, to vicious factional street fighting in Kabul, to human-rights catastrophes for Afghanistan’s women and girls? Will international jihadists use the country once again as a base for planning terrorist attacks? To anyone who remembers what happened in Iraq after the U.S. departure, in 2011—when the Islamic State swept across a large swath of both Iraq and Syria and nearly rode into Baghdad itself—these are not abstract fears.

As soon as Biden’s decision was announced, both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, and also a few Democrats, criticized the move. For the past four years, they had invoked those same scary scenarios in seeking to persuade Donald Trump to keep a U.S. presence there, despite the former President’s repeatedly stated intention to get out. McConnell, with what seemed like an unusually high quotient of political chutzpah, called “precipitously withdrawing” American forces from Afghanistan “a grave mistake.” Whatever you think of Biden’s decision, after twenty years, it is certainly not precipitous.

Progressive Democrats, on the left, and Trumpian America Firsters, on the right, were more supportive, but Jack Reed, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke for many—from both parties—in Washington’s national-security establishment when he called Biden’s decision a “tough call on what may be the least of many bad options.” The tepid support also surely reflected the fact that Biden’s decision went against the Washington consensus, which had continued, more or less, since the later Bush years and through the, Obama and Trump Presidencies. In February, 2020, the Trump Administration signed a deal with the Taliban that pledged a U.S. troop exit by May 1st of this year, in effect kicking it to his successor to ratify or reject the decision.

In the end, though, Biden’s call was not surprising. Last November, I asked Kori Schake, a veteran of Bush’s Pentagon and National Security Council, what to make of Trump’s post-election push to withdraw the troops before the end of his term, a desire that seemed to influence his decision to fire his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper. (Trump, in fact, seemed to have fired Esper mostly out of pique, having harbored a months-long grudge against his Defense Secretary for apologizing that he took part in Trump’s controversial Lafayette Square photo op, during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.) Wasn’t it just another problem for Biden to deal with, I asked? “Looks to me like a gift,” Schake replied, “though that was clearly not Trump’s intention.” By extending Trump’s deadline from May 1st to the politically charged date of September 11th, Biden added months to Trump’s deadline and enabled himself, as Schake told me, on Wednesday, to “strike the pose of looking more cautious” than Trump while still leaving responsibility for the deal on Trump’s ledger, should things go sour. That could be a gift, indeed, and Biden took pains to emphasize in his speech that the deal was one he “inherited.”

But the truth is that Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan very much reflects his long-held views. He has pushed to exit Afghanistan ever since he was Obama’s Vice-President. In 2009, he hand-wrote a memo and faxed it to Obama, urging him to refuse to agree to the military’s proposal for a large surge of additional troops into what Biden already viewed as a dead end. Biden lost that argument but never ceded the point, and the subsequent years have proved him right about the bloody stalemate that resulted: an Afghan government shored up by the United States but never strong enough to defeat a resurgent Taliban or negotiate a viable peace deal. Many experts in Washington judged the military impasse as an unfortunate but acceptable trade, given the unpalatable alternatives.

Not Biden. He recalled in his speech on Wednesday that, back in 2008, he had travelled to Afghanistan, at Obama’s request, to evaluate the situation firsthand. He said he had come essentially to the same conclusion then that he reached anew this week: the U.S. mission as it evolved over time was doomed to failure, because “endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.”

A week after the 9/11 attacks, when I was a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, I went to interview Boris Gromov, who had commanded the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan after that country’s own disastrous, decade-long war there. Gromov’s solitary walk across the Friendship Bridge and back to Soviet territory, on February 15, 1989, was a symbol of superpower humiliation just as resonant for Russians as the helicopter taking off from the rooftop in Saigon, in 1975, is for Americans. Gromov warned that, despite what seemed like overwhelming advantages for the United States at the time, it, too, would face a “sea of bloodshed” in going to war in Afghanistan.

His warning was prescient, informed by history and dreadful personal experience, but not even a Russian general would have predicted in the fall of 2001 that the United States would still be on the ground in Afghanistan two decades afterward. The sheer length of the conflict, and the American public’s essential indifference to it, have obscured the fact that the U.S. long ago abandoned, in reality if not in rhetoric, the pretense that this was a war that could be won. There simply was no political appetite for the investment of troops and of money that would have been required.

That led to a large and growing gap between the outsized, even hyperbolic political conversation surrounding Afghanistan as an endless war—America’s longest—and the policy debate surrounding what to do with the small, largely counterterrorism-focussed U.S. force there, a force that in recent years rarely took casualties and engaged in little to no combat. Of the 2,488 U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan, which Biden cited during his speech, some two thousand occurred a decade or more ago. The last U.S. combat fatality in the country was fourteen months ago. There are currently about two hundred thousand U.S. troops deployed overseas, but just thirty-five hundred are stationed in Afghanistan. The real debate in successive White Houses has been over whether this force should remain there to serve as a hedge against Al Qaeda, ISIS, or other terrorist groups. But the debate was rarely framed that way publicly, nor was it this week.

“Biden Sets End Date for Nation’s Longest War,” the banner headline in Wednesday’s Times read. In truth, the Afghan war will go on, just without the United States participating in it. The annual Global Threats Report, issued by the U.S. intelligence community this week, was both grim and clear on this point. The “prospects for a peace deal will remain low,” the report says, because the Taliban leadership is “confident it can achieve military victory.” After twenty years of war in Afghanistan, the report devoted only a couple of bullet points to the conflict. This is what moving on looks like.

For several hours before Biden’s speech, his newly appointed intelligence leaders testified before Congress about that global-threats assessment. Afghanistan rated only a couple of questions, and also a muted, if sobering, acknowledgement from Bill Burns, the new C.I.A. director, that the U.S.’s capacity to collect information on potential terrorist threats coming from Afghan territory “will diminish,” and that there will be “significant risk” once the U.S. withdrawal is complete. “That is simply a fact,” he said.

The world of 2021 is just not the world of 2001. The list of more pressing concerns—recited by Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, and elaborated on in the report—began with an aggressive China and extended to Russia, Iran, North Korea, cyberattacks, climate change, global pandemics, financial crises, rising authoritarianism, international terrorist groups, and, in a striking acknowledgement for this annual national-security ritual, domestic violent extremists, such as the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, on January 6th. No wonder that Mark Warner, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Haines’s testimony “a list of about as many awful things as I have heard in ten minutes as I may have heard in recent times.”

Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan must be understood in that context. After a pandemic that has killed close to six hundred thousand Americans, new thinking about what constitutes a threat to the United States is desperately required. More Americans were dying every day during the pandemic’s height than in the entire two decades of the U.S. involvement in the Afghan war. And it was Americans seeking to stop the peaceful transfer of power who attacked the seat of American government, in January. National security is no longer a matter purely of foreign policy. Biden admitted he was making a choice, and maybe it will even prove to be the wrong one. But it’s a choice, he said, to “fight the battles for the next twenty years—not the last twenty.”