WASHINGTON — The Forever War might at last be coming to an end. On Wednesday, the news leaked out that President Biden planned to announce that American troops would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
To hear the Biden administration tell it, this will not be a partial exit from the Afghan theater. “This is not conditions-based,” an anonymous administration source told the Washington Post. In other words, there won’t be any criteria that, if not met by September, could give Biden the ability to renege on his withdrawal plans.
So: Is this good news? Is the longest war in American history, one that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of U.S. service members and tens of thousands more Afghan soldiers and civilians not to mention the spending of trillions of taxpayer dollars, finally coming to an end?
The early reviews — even from Biden’s critics — are cautiously optimistic. “It’s tremendously encouraging,” says Stephen Wertheim, director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that opposes forever wars and militarization of U.S. foreign policy. “If what we’ve heard reported is indeed the administration’s position, then the administration has broken with the logic of endless war.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) praised Biden’s forthcoming announcement, calling it the “the brave and right decision.”
Still, the forthcoming announcement raises as many questions as it answers about the Biden administration’s foreign policy, the peace deal negotiated by former President Trump and the Taliban, and the future of Afghanistan. Here are four of the most pressing questions.
What might happen between now and Biden’s withdrawal date?
Under the deal negotiated by the Trump administration, U.S. forces had a deadline of May 1st to get out of Afghanistan. President Biden has now pushed back that deadline by four months.
The Trump-era deal, reached in 2020, was the product of lengthy negotiations between U.S. and Taliban officials stemming from Trump’s promise to end America’s longest-running conflict. At the same time, the Taliban and the Afghan government continue to hash out a power-sharing agreement of their own that’s intended to allow the two sides to coexist in a future government.
Benjamin Friedman, policy director of the anti-interventionist group Defense Priorities, says the delayed withdrawal could provoke the Taliban, which negotiated the original deadline. If the Taliban takes a more aggressive posture and says the U.S. military is noncompliant, the Taliban could launch attacks on American troops still in the country. Taliban officials could also back out of their ongoing and fitful peace negotiations with the hobbled Afghan government.
Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute says: “There’s a very real possibility of escalation of violence in Afghanistan as we move into the summer, and it will require a great deal of resolve on the administration’s part, especially if U.S. troops are targeted, to stick with the withdrawal.”
The extra four months between Trump’s withdrawal date and Biden’s could also give domestic war hawks more time to undermine the end of the Afghan war. Will Ruger, a Afghan war veteran and vice president and foreign-policy expert at the Charles Koch Institute, which has long opposed forever wars, says the resistance to non-interventionist foreign policy by certain members of the Trump administration should be a warning to Biden administration officials. “Will this time be used by spoilers both foreign and domestic to make the policy of withdrawal more difficult for the Biden administration?” he says. “And will people inside the administration or the bureaucracy make implementation more difficult?”
Does the Afghan withdrawal signal a bigger shift in American military policy?
The U.S. has used military force more frequently in the decades since the end of the Cold War than it did during the Cold War itself. American foreign policy has existed in a state of autopilot, holding fast to the belief that, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, it could use military force to build nations, spread democracy, and defeat terrorism. “What we’ve done without a larger enemy is create a whole world of smaller enemies for ourselves,” Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute says, “including by pursuing grandiose and unachievable objectives in a number of military campaigns especially after 9/11.”
The invasion of Afghanistan was the opening salvo of the endless conflict formerly known as the Global War of Terrorism. And a complete withdrawal could be taken as an admission that endless war, military bases scattered across the planet, and an intervention-first mentality have failed. Will the close of the longest American war prompt a true rethinking of this country’s place in the world? Could it be the beginning of the end of this era of nation-building abroad? Should American military power be one of the first tools out of the toolkit? Does the U.S. really need to be as enmeshed in the Greater Middle East as it has been for the last 20 years?
The Afghan withdrawal could — and should, some would argue — lead to a reckoning over these questions, and a consideration over what a new, more modest and realistic U.S. foreign policy should look like. “It’s a welcome sign and certainly there would be people who argue, ‘Why stop here?’ ” says Ruger.
Is a new, right-meets-left, anti-war coalition rising in Washington?
President Biden arrived in office with a plan already in place to get out of Afghanistan. From the earliest days of his 2016 campaign to the final days of his presidency, Donald Trump spoke out against America’s endless wars and vowed to end them on his watch. His eagerness to shovel billions of dollars more into the Pentagon budget cut against his anti-war pledges, but nonetheless Trump left his successor with a roadmap for leaving Afghanistan.
One question that hovers over the withdrawal is: Will the Biden administration, and Democrats broadly, take up the anti-war mantle?
Poll after poll showed that part of Donald Trump’s appeal to Republican voters was his pledge to end America’s wars. And now, Will Ruger points to polling by the Charles Koch Institute that still finds large majorities on the left and right who support ending forever wars, just as the anti-war cause has created some odd bedfellows in recent years, with Sen. Bernie Sanders and, yes, Charles Koch singing from the same hymnal about stopping America’s interventionist foreign policy.
“America continuing to fight wars in the Middle East is not something that is supported widely in the American public outside of a very small coalition,” Ruger says. “The Beltway foreign-policy establishment is much more supportive of these things than the American public. It’s smart politics on the left and right to be in favor of [ending wars and non-intervention].”
If the Democrats as a party do move in an anti-war and less interventionist direction, how will Republicans react? The party of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives is now divided between a newer generation that’s critical of America’s invade-first-ask-questions-later approach and the last of the neoconservatives, people like Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, who was an architect of the Global War on Terrorism. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for instance has lauded the possible withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has slammed it.
To be clear, Biden has sent mixed signals about his larger foreign-policy philosophy. Military strikes in Syria and proposed increases to the Pentagon budget suggest he still clings to a belief in a military-first approach. But if he tried to court supporters of Trump’s who were drawn to the former president’s criticism of the Iraq and Afghan wars, such a move could isolate both the neocons in the GOP and the liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party (who used to count Biden as a member). It would begin to create a bipartisan coalition, Ruger says, of the likes not seen in this country in a generation.
What happens to Afghanistan in the long term?
The outlook is bleak. The Taliban control huge swaths of the country; by some measures more territory is under Taliban rule now than at any point since 2001. The Afghan government, on the other hand, is weak, riddled with corruption, and capable of exerting little control outside of Kabul, the capital. The U.S. has poured more than $2 trillion into Afghanistan in the past 20 years to fund the war, keep the Afghan government from disintegrating, fighting the drug trade, and supporting aid efforts. So what happens when the Americans leave?
Ben Friedman of Defense Priorities says it’s quite likely the U.S. will continue to funnel money into Afghanistan via aid efforts and other ways of bolstering the government. But he adds that he sees little evidence that continued funding, just like an ongoing military presence, will ever lead to a self-sustaining and functional government in Afghanistan. Nor will endless American taxpayer dollars somehow keep the Taliban at bay going forward, given how little effect all of that money has had on the Taliban’s resurgence in recent years.
“I don’t think that staying another six months or two yrs or 10 years will change the balance of power between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, which is that Afghanistan forces are dangerously weakened by corruption and failure for years to provide basic security,” he says. “I don’t think there’s much the U.S. can do about that. For all the talk about preserving women’s rights and human rights in Afghanistan, I think sooner or later you have to accept that the Afghanistan government has to sink or swim on its own.”
Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute says he’s similarly at a loss about what the future holds for Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave for good. “It’s a known unknown, to quote someone I’m not fond of,” he says. “I expect the Biden administration will be engaged diplomatically to act as good of a broker as we can.”
He continues, “But I hope what we’ve learned over two decades is that the presence of U.S. troops in a conflict very often makes a sustainable peace harder to achieve, not easier.”