All in or all out? Biden saw no middle ground in Afghanistan.
By Peter Baker
As the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan capping an ill-fated 20-year war has turned uglier and deadlier in recent days, President Joe Biden has stood by his decision but at the same time repeatedly singled out one person in particular to blame: his predecessor.
Because former President Donald Trump struck an agreement with the Taliban last year to pull out, Biden has insisted that he had no choice but to abide by the deal he inherited or send tens of thousands of U.S. troops back to Afghanistan to risk their lives in a “forever war.” It was, in other words, all in or all out.
But that reductionist formula has prompted a profound debate over whether the mayhem in Kabul, the capital, was in fact inevitable or the result of a failure to consider other options that might have ended in a different outcome. The unusual confluence of two presidents of rival parties sharing the same goal and same approach has led to second-guessing and finger-pointing that may play out for years in history books yet unwritten.
In framing the decision before him as either complete withdrawal or endless escalation, Biden has been telling the public that there was no choice at all, because he knew that Americans had long since grown disenchanted with the Afghanistan war and favored getting out. The fact that Trump was the one to leave behind a withdrawal agreement has enabled Biden to try to share responsibility.
“There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more U.S. troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict,” Biden said as the Taliban seized Kabul this month.
Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that might not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster unfolding in Kabul and the provinces.
“The administration is presenting the choices in a way that is, at best, incomplete,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush who oversaw earlier stages of the Afghan war. “No one I knew was advocating the return of tens of thousands of Americans into ‘open combat’ with the Taliban.”
Instead, some, including the current military leadership of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that keeping a relatively modest force of 3,000 to 4,500 troops along with the extensive use of drones and close air support could have enabled Afghan security forces to continue holding off the Taliban without putting Americans at much risk.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., supports Biden’s withdrawal. Murphy said those arguing to keep troops in Afghanistan were the ones who failed to win the war for two decades and perpetually pushed to stay even though “we have been losing for six to eight years.”
“To me, it’s the same game,” he said in an interview. “Everybody’s got a plan. But I’ve been working on this long enough to know everybody’s plans are” awful, he added, using an expletive. “The reality is inescapable.”
Biden was the third president in a row determined to finally end the war in Afghanistan, which has cost the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and as much as $2 trillion. In recent years, though, the conflict had evolved into an uneasy status quo with a far smaller U.S. footprint. After drawdowns beginning under Obama, a fraction of the troops there at the peak were left, yet military strategists said they had an outsize impact in keeping Afghan security forces in the fight without engaging in as much combat themselves.
Fewer than 100 U.S. troops died in combat in Afghanistan over the past five years, roughly the equivalent of the number of Americans dying from COVID-19 every two hours. Until the devastating attack this week by ISIS-K at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. service members, the military had suffered no combat deaths since the Trump agreement was signed.
Under the four-page deal signed in February 2020, Trump agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, lift sanctions and compel the release of 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government, which was cut out of the negotiations. The Taliban committed to not attacking U.S. troops on the way out or letting terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States.
While the Taliban agreed to talk with the Afghan government, nothing in the publicly released part of the deal prevented them from taking over the country by force, as they ultimately did, and reimposing their repressive regime of torture, murder and subjugation of women. It was such a one-sided bargain that even Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster called it a “surrender agreement.”
Following the deal, Trump reduced U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 4,500 from 13,000. Eager to be the president to end the war, he signed a memo to the Pentagon instructing it to pull out all remaining forces by Jan. 15, before he was to leave office, but advisers talked him out of that plan. Instead, he ordered the force drawn down to 2,500 troops in his final days, although about 3,500 actually remained.
For Biden, inheriting such a small force in Afghanistan meant that commanders were already left with too few troops to respond to a renewed Taliban offensive against U.S. forces, which he deemed certain to come if he jettisoned Trump’s agreement, requiring him to send thousands more troops back in, officials said.
Democrats who previously worked with Biden said they assumed that his mind was already made up on Afghanistan when he took office in January and that his current advisers, knowing that, did not push back hard. But aides to the president insisted that while he had strong views, he engaged in a methodical policy process to test his own assumptions and explore alternatives, repeatedly insisting there be “no stone left unturned.”
Biden assigned Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, to run an interagency examination of Afghanistan policy that resulted in 10 meetings of department deputies, three cabinet-level meetings and four meetings in the Situation Room that included the president.
Particularly influential on Biden, aides said, were a series of intelligence assessments he requested about Afghanistan’s neighbors and near neighbors, which found that Russia and China wanted the United States to remain bogged down in Afghanistan.
At the end of the day, the officials said, every option eventually led to one of two ultimate alternatives — get out altogether, as Trump had agreed to do, or prepare for a prolonged and more dangerous shooting war with many more troops. While not everyone in the room preferred Biden’s path, officials maintained that everyone was heard.
At this point, the die is cast. Biden made his choice. He wanted to be the president to end America’s longest war. Right or wrong, he has done so and on that, there is no middle ground.