Nearly a decade ago, in a Fort Bragg, N.C., airplane hangar packed with nearly 3,000 servicemen and -women, President Obama welcomed some of the last troops home from Iraq and uttered these knowing — and prophetic — words: “It’s harder to end a war than to begin one.”
At the time, Obama couldn’t predict just how hard it would be or calculate the manifold U.S. security costs involved. Despite his best efforts to pivot his administration’s attention from the Middle East to Asia, the rise of the Islamic State and its deadly rampage across Iraq and Syria once again drew the U.S. back into Iraq three years later, with U.S. troops deployed to stop a gruesome genocide taking place in the security vacuum the U.S. left behind.
ISIS’s determination to build a caliphate exacerbated the existing refugee crisis in the region, the worst in a generation with millions displaced, and led to the exporting of terrorist plots to the U.S. and Europe, as well as the rise of home-grown, ISIS-inspired terrorists.
Now it’s President Biden’s turn to make a security gamble – this time in Afghanistan, where the U.S. troop footprint stands at 2,500, down from the roughly 8,400 at the beginning of President Trump’s tenure. Biden on Wednesday announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from the country will take place by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the attacks that first drew America into its longest war.
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over an American presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.”
In making the decision, Biden extended by several months the planned May 1 withdrawal date the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban. Speaking in highly personal terms about his own view of this seemingly endless war, Biden said he was keeping a U.S. promise to leave the country because he saw no military solution that would permanently stabilize it.
“I’m the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serving in a war zone,” he said. “Throughout this process, my north star has been remembering what it was like when my late son Beau was deployed to Iraq. How proud he was to serve his country. How insistent he was to deploy with his unit and the impact it had on him and all of us at home.”
Now there are military members in Afghanistan whose parents served in the same combat theater. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking,” he said.
Biden has plenty of Democrats backing his withdrawal plan — many who wish he would have stuck with the May 1 deadline.
“It took us 10 years to find and kill Osama bin Laden. We stayed an additional 10 years to help train Afghan security forces and create conditions for a more stable future for that country,” said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. “It is now time to bring out troops home.”
Some Republicans, including close Trump allies such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, are also on board after years of supporting Trump’s America-first agenda and his own campaign promise to pull U.S. troops out of the region and end the wars there. Cruz argues that withdrawing our troops from the country won’t stop Biden from using military force to protect American interests, as well as those of our allies, if the security situation in Afghanistan worsens after the departure.
“Bringing our troops home should not be taken as a sign that America will be any less vigilant in protecting American lives and those of our allies, but we can do so without a permanent military presence in a hostile terrain,” Cruz said on CNN Tuesday.
But his support for the withdrawal, along with Paul’s, is not common on the GOP side of the aisle. Certainly, far more Republicans than Democrats are issuing dire warnings against the move. Sen. Lindsey Graham, consistently one of the most hawkish Republicans in Congress, called Biden’s announcement of a date for withdrawal “insane” and warned that picking up and leaving would make any type of raid on a terrorist leader, like the one Navy SEALs conducted against 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, far more difficult.
A number of Democrats also are deeply concerned about the withdrawal, arguing that ending the U.S. military presence is a risky gambit for both America’s interests and those of the Afghan people.
When Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, an effort Biden, as his vice president, spearheaded, he was under enormous political pressure to do so as the U.S. troop death toll continued to mount a year ahead of his reelection effort. But ending the pandemic was the overriding concern of the 2020 presidential campaign, with Afghanistan barely a footnote. Why then, critics of the withdrawal ask, take the risk of destabilizing the region, allowing the country to once again become a hotbed of terrorism, and eroding the progress made in establishing the rule of law and protecting the Afghan people, especially women, from tyrannical Taliban rule?
“I’m very disappointed in the president’s decision to set a September deadline to walk away from Afghanistan,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire who sits on the foreign relations and armed forces committees, said in a statement. “Although this decision was made in coordination with our allies, the U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave without verifiable assurances of a secure future.
“It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women,” she continued. “I urge the Biden administration to make every effort between now and September to safeguard the progress made and support our partners in the formation of an inclusive, transitional government.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, said it’s clear the U.S. has little chance of winning the war in Afghanistan, but there are “still devastating ways we could lose.”
While Trump and other war-fatigued Americans have deemed Afghanistan a “forever war,” others say the combat mission that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has morphed into partnership with the country’s elected government – with the U.S. benefiting from it as an insurance policy on security. The Taliban has not altered its plans to retake the country and still has not cut ties to al-Qaeda – the terrorist group’s second in command was killed in Afghanistan less than six months ago. With the Taliban back in power, women could pay the highest price and once again be barred from attending school or holding jobs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the impending move a “grave mistake,” arguing that NATO allies have “practically been begging the United States to stay by their side.” McConnell referred to a 2019 amendment he authored that cautioned against “precipitous retreats” from Afghanistan and Syria – a measure that a supermajority of senators backed.
“The amendment called upon the administration to, quote, ‘certify that conditions have been met for the enduring defeat of al-Qaeda and ISIS before initiating any significant withdrawal of United States forces from Syria or Afghanistan,'” McConnell said.
“Can President Biden certify that right now?” he asked.
Though Trump never succeeded in pulling all troops out of the country, he drew down the force level carefully, negotiating a May 1 date for a complete withdrawal after months of peace talks with the Taliban – but only if the Taliban met certain conditions.
Critics of Biden’s decision argue the Taliban clearly shows no intention of upholding its end of the deal. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction has produced its 2021 High-Risk List, which identifies threats to reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. That report showed the Taliban hasn’t altered its long-held goal of taking over the country, use of violent attacks against outside forces or its alliance with terrorist groups that still operate freely in Afghanistan with Taliban cover.
Just last month, the Taliban twice targeted U.S. personnel at a military installation in the eastern region of the country with rocket attacks, and last week another occurred in Kandahar with rockets landing near a NATO air base used by U.S. and coalition troops providing support to Afghan forces.
In light of that record, especially when Biden’s decision about U.S. withdrawal was hanging in the balance, why would the rebel group uphold its end of the deal and allow the Afghan government to continue operating after American forces leave?
Although Biden didn’t condition the U.S. withdrawal on violence levels in Afghanistan, his national security team no doubt will be watching them closely. Exiting on Sept. 11 would make for dramatic bookends to America’s longest war, but only if doing so isn’t just a prelude to another, perhaps bloodier, struggle.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.