Biden is exorcising the ghost of bin Laden from US foreign policy

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Ten years ago on May 1, U.S. Navy Seals raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, shot him in the head and dumped his body in the Indian Ocean. 

Nonetheless, bin Laden’s spirit, and the memory of how he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks against America, have plagued U.S. national security policy, resulting in decisions that failed to advance our national interest.

Now, with President Biden ordering our departure from Afghanistan, bin Laden’s ghost, and the overwrought fear of terrorism accompanying it, has finally been vanquished. Our foreign policy can now move forward based on a clear-headed assessment of the threats we face and what we should do about them. 

To be clear, there is no doubt that the devastating attack on our country almost 20 years ago warranted a strong and immediate response. President Bush rightly demanded that the Taliban deliver bin Laden and his band of terrorists to the United States. When the mullahs refused, Bush properly ordered a military invasion directed at overthrowing the Taliban and depriving al Qaeda of its safe haven in Afghanistan.

Even though these objectives were quickly and decisively achieved, bin Laden’s over-sized shadow loomed over and distorted our post-9/11 foreign policy, with too many decisions framed around the imperative of “stopping the next 9/11” and driving the risk of any terrorist attacks down to zero.

The misadventure in Iraq is exhibit A for this mindset. The Bush administration convinced itself of a non-existent linkage between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden and decided that the antidote to bin Laden’s nihilistic and authoritarian ideology was to bring democracy to the Middle East. 

Now, 18 years after the invasion, Iraq is a quasi-failed state riddled by insurgency and deeply vulnerable to influence from Iran — our main protagonist in the region. In Iraq, over-hyped fear of terrorism trumped a clear assessment of U.S. national security interests.  

For 20 years, decision-making with regard to Afghanistan has been no better.

Our core goal has been to prevent al Qaeda and similar groups from using Afghanistan to plan and launch attacks on the United States and our allies. 

Yet, we decided that to achieve this goal, we needed to decisively defeat the Afghan Taliban — a long-standing, entrenched insurgency that we should have realized from the outset would never accede to extended presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan or accept a government closely aligned with the West.  

To successfully execute this counterinsurgency, we had to build an entire government, military, police force and economy from scratch, and overcome historic tribal rivalries, the effects of decades of war, endemic corruption, poverty and widespread illiteracy.

It is a testimony to America’s confidence and grit, as well as the tremendous skills and dedication of our military and other government agencies, that we even tried to address this daunting challenge. We and the Afghan people can be proud of many remarkable achievements. But in the end, the cost in precious lives, treasure and diversion from other domestic and global priorities has been far too high.

Our error has been that we took on this truly impossible task not based on a rational assessment of whether the counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban was winnable, but rather because our thinking was clouded by the ghost of bin Laden. 

We have been consistently overestimating bin Laden and his successors’ strength and underestimating our capability to mitigate the threat they posed by means other than inserting ourselves inside Afghanistan’s civil war. 

Implicit in Biden’s decision to remove troops from Afghanistan is that he is willing to accept at least some additional risk that al Qaeda could gain strength in the region. Acknowledging this publicly was unspeakable a decade ago, even after bin Laden had entered his watery grave.

But accepting this risk makes sense. 

Every dollar and bit of governmental energy spent in Afghanistan cannot be dedicated to the much greater national security challenges of preventing another global pandemic, climate change and competition with China. These threats far exceed the harms that Islamist militants can cause to our citizens and interests.

Nor does withdrawal from Afghanistan suggest that the U.S. is deemphasizing the fight against terrorism.

Consistent with U.S. policy for decades, Biden will still spend many tens of billions annually on special forces operations abroad, drone strikes on terrorist targets, intelligence collection and analysis, homeland security and more. 

Biden’s bold decision on Afghanistan, however, has paved the way for assessing these expenditures, and other aspects of our foreign policy, through a clear, rational assessment of costs and benefits, free from the oversized influence that the long-departed bin Laden has been exercising for far too long. 

David Schanzer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. 

Tags 9/11 attacks Afghanistan War Afghanistan withdrawal Foreign policy Iraq War Joe Biden middle east war Osama bin Laden Terrorism troop withdrawal War on Terror

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