Many people are still surprised that the Biden administration is not blinking about removing troops from Afghanistan. Surely there are fears — including from top military and our intelligence community — that the country could descend into civil war. I've been calling the Biden strategy the least bad option — and one consistent with the basic premise of my recent book “Insanity Defense.” We've been doing the same thing for two decades and expecting a different result.
Biden's move is not a one-off. It is now clear that he opposed much of the response that developed after passage by Congress of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against those who attacked us on 9/11. All but one member of Congress supported that AUMF — including then Sen. Joe BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE and me. Biden's view is that the U.S. accomplished the objectives of the AUMF years ago — culminating in the take-down of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, yet the so-called “war on terror” continued and expanded to military missions (over 40) in countries (19) that had no role in attacking the U.S. on 9/11.
Congress has funded these operations without a successful effort to amend the AUMF — or even effective oversight. The Pentagon has lobbied for troop surges supported by consecutive presidents and the use of weaponized drones has expanded dramatically without adequate attention to the so-called "boomerang effect" (we are making more enemies than we are killing).
Michael Hirsch wrote recently in Foreign Policy that John Finer, now Biden's deputy National Security Adviser, authored a memo last summer called “Ending the ‘Forever Wars’” that recognized U.S. counterterrorism efforts spread over 20 years from Afghanistan to “Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia and parts of the Maghreb, Southeast Asia and West and Central Africa” and should be dramatically reined in. Without much fanfare, that memo seems to be the underpinning of a broader strategy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan but also dramatically curtail other aspects of the war on terror including drone strikes.
Clearly, there is continued push back from the Pentagon and former military officials, and others in the thought leader community. But terror is a tactic, not an enemy in the classic sense. And Biden’s big bet is that changing America’s footprint while also prioritizing direct threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate and domestic terrorism will make us truly safer.
All of this is not to say the process has been pitch-perfect. It hasn’t been. Reports that some Afghans weren’t notified about our departure from Bagram — claiming we turned off the lights without telling the night watchmen who had to deal with looters — are concerning. Military planning is lauded for its carefulness and this may have been a botch, which makes it more crucial that we move adroitly and quickly to move Afghan interpreters and advisors to safety while their visas process. Congress — where there is rare bipartisan support for this — can be helpful here by amending existing law to expedite the process.
Biden is publicly supporting efforts by Congress to repeal the 2002 AUMF in Iraq. The House recently passed a bill to do this by a large bipartisan margin and it has a good chance to pass the Senate. Clearly, the thread bare 2001 AUMF is also in his sights and bipartisan legislation to repeal and replace it is necessary. Good on Congress which is finally taking steps to reclaim its duty as the Article I branch of government to declare wars. But good on Biden too.
He might just be right.
Jane Harman is distinguished fellow and president emerita of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served nine terms in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. Her book, “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe,” was released in May by St. Martin’s Press.