The Memo: Biden puts 9/11 era in rear view
President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan brings a final curtain down on the 9/11 era of foreign policy.
That two-decade epoch was dominated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Almost 2,400 American service members died in Afghanistan, and the conflict drained around $2 trillion from U.S. coffers. The financial cost of the war in Iraq was just as big, and around 4,500 U.S. personnel were killed there.
But while those conflicts raged overseas, Americans at home endured the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a notably sluggish recovery, the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump and a once-in-a-century pandemic.
That has left most Americans — apparently including Biden — with little appetite for the long, arduous and often-unsuccessful quest toward “nation-building” overseas. And that, in turn, is prompting the withdrawal of the final U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who currently number around 2,500.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said as he announced his decision in the Treaty Room of the White House on Wednesday. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”
One of the most striking things about Afghanistan and Iraq is the extent to which they have dropped off the radar, at least for those Americans who are not directly affected.
The time now seems distant when then-President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq sparked huge street protests in the U.S. — or when the descent in American fortunes in both conflicts led evening newscasts and roiled the political waters.
Many people who served in those wars feel the public lack of interest keenly. Unlike the Vietnam War half a century ago, there is no military draft throwing the general public into harm’s way now. An all-volunteer military force, and the fact that the problems of Afghanistan seem so distant from most Americans, creates its own dynamics.
Dan Berschinski, a retired U.S. Army captain, lost both his legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2009. He is a critic of the war but is also struck by how removed the American public is from it.
He told The Hill that when he does speaking engagements, “Every single time, the feedback I get is, ‘I don’t understand why we are still in Afghanistan, I never hear my elected representatives talk about it.’”
He added: “The American public is disconnected from this war. … We don’t ask them to serve unless they want to, we won’t ask them to pay higher taxes to fund this war. At best, we ask them to stand in the seventh inning of a baseball game and applaud a small group of soldiers somewhere in left field.”
Berschinksi, speaking on a media call organized by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, welcomed Biden’s decision, arguing that it was pointless to keep American troops in Afghanistan with no obviously attainable objective in sight.
“The intent was good,” he said. But “establishing a secure and stable Afghan government that is friendly with the West and unfriendly to the Taliban is just an impossible task.”
Still, that does not mean that Biden’s decision to withdraw is risk-free, politically or strategically.
The Taliban are getting stronger in the country, and the nightmare U.S. scenario is one in which Afghanistan is utilized once again as a base for terrorist attacks. The conflict had begun because Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda enjoyed safe harbor in the nation, courtesy of the Taliban.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s decision.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned Wednesday that “this plan will essentially hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban. … They will surely see this withdrawal as their victory.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the withdrawal “a grave mistake” in a floor speech the previous day. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has branded the move “dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous.”
But the partisan heat that America’s foreign wars generated a decade ago has cooled off, too.
Biden’s plan for withdrawal is slower than the one favored by Trump, who promised to pull out by the start of next month.
Trump’s general instincts were also far more isolationist than Bush or most other recent GOP presidents. As a candidate for his party’s nomination in 2016, Trump condemned Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq — and suffered no adverse political consequences.
Still, there are concerns even among liberal-leaning experts about what happens in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank, said that while Biden’s rationale appeared “reasonable,” it had to be weighed against “the risk here that it ignores one of the key lessons from the Obama administration from Iraq. The efforts to pull out of Iraq by a certain date and not really observe any sense of a conditions-based withdrawal promptly led them to be drawn back in about two years later when ISIS reemerged.”
Katulis was also dubious about the idea that the American public had turned against interventionism in and of itself. It was, he said, more a matter of them having other concerns.
“The actual question is, how much are Americans even paying attention to these conflicts?” he said. “The biggest dynamic is that Americans are much more focused on the problems in their immediate lives. All these other issues that used to dominate? They don’t concern most Americans, writ large.”
It all amounts to a curiously muted end for an era marked by such massive military endeavors.
There will be no ticker-tape victory parade — and no chaotic final collapse either, as was seen in Vietnam in the 1970s.
“It’s time to end the forever war,” Biden said on Wednesday. “We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20.”
The message was clear.
Two decades after the catastrophe of 9/11, America finally has other things to do.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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