U.S. President Joe Biden announced last week that he will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida terror attacks on the United States. It is a controversial decision, especially when Afghanistan remains divided by civil war and the government in Kabul is weak and tottering.
But it’s the right choice, one that shows that Biden thinks strategically and has his priorities right. The ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan was a distraction and a drag on the United States; withdrawal will allow the Biden administration to focus on real threats to U.S. interests and better marshal resources to address them.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, in retaliation for terror attacks against American targets — two aircraft crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, and a third struck the Pentagon; a fourth plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania — less than a month earlier on Sept. 11. Despite quickly overrunning the Taliban government — removed for giving safe haven to the attacks’ mastermind Osama bin Laden — the U.S. has had a military presence in the country ever since. At its height, more than 100,000 U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan. Currently, there are officially 2,500 troops in country (although there are reportedly 1,000 more special forces personnel) and another 7,000 from other countries.
Over those two decades, the U.S. has lost 2,312 military personnel in what has become known as “the forever war”; the number of civilian casualties is unknown, but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Thousands more have suffered injuries and suffer enduring physical and mental pain and trauma. The Pentagon estimated that at the end of 2020, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan had run up a bill of $824.9 billion. Other allied governments have lost substantial blood and treasure as well.
Biden’s logic is simple. After 20 years, the U.S. has achieved its primary objective — the destruction of al-Qaida and the end of its threat to the U.S. from Afghanistan — and must now turn to more pressing threats. He explained last week that “We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago.” But, he continued, “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021. Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us.”
This is no recent conversion. While he backed the initial invasion, Biden opposed a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan since he was Barack Obama’s vice president, noting last week that “I never thought we were there to somehow unify … Afghanistan,” adding that “It’s never been done.”
Critics charge Biden’s decision is wrong and dangerous. They argue that the war in Afghanistan is not won; the Taliban will retake power and provide a safe haven for terrorist groups that will target U.S and allied interests. They warn that a Taliban government will resume its repression of women, undoing the gains of the last two decades. All Afghans who helped coalition forces or opposed the Taliban will be targets as well. And, they assert, U.S. withdrawal will embolden enemies of the U.S and like-minded countries who see the move as proof of a nation that is exhausted and unable to follow through on its commitments.
Those critics are right that the war is not over, and the Afghan government is weak. But the decision to withdraw U.S. forces, while leaving a bitter taste, is no sign of weakness. It is instead a recognition of two basic facts. First, that a continued U.S. military presence will not change the situation in Afghanistan. (Biden forcefully rejects the idea that the U.S. is responsible for the fate of the country’s women.) Second, that despite its much-vaunted military, the U.S. has finite resources. As White House press spokesperson Jen Psaki explained, Biden “believes we need to focus our resources on fighting the threats we face today, 20 years — almost 20 years — after the war began.”
The claim that this move weakens the U.S. is flat out wrong. Instead, by eliminating a distraction for U.S. decision-makers and ending the drain on their resources, it allows the U.S. to better address real dangers it faces. For many, that includes China. The newly released 2021 Annual Threat Assessment Report identifies China as “a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas—especially economically, militarily, and technologically — and is pushing to change global norms.”
That analysis concludes that Beijing is pursuing “whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system.” For the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), competition with the U.S. is “part of an epochal geopolitical shift,” and Beijing is using “growing military power with its economic, technological, and diplomatic clout to preserve the CCP, secure what it views as its territory and regional preeminence, and pursue international cooperation at Washington’s expense.”
That assessment has been reflected in conversations between Japanese and U.S. officials and was the focus of discussions between Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week in Washington. It is driving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other initiatives. It should also quiet anxieties that a Biden administration would go easy on China or embrace the “new type of major power relations” advanced by Beijing and rejected by two U.S. administrations.
No matter how bold or politically dangerous his decision may be (and rest assured Biden will be pilloried for anything bad that happens in Afghanistan from now on), withdrawing forces from Afghanistan is only a first step. He must still articulate and implement his strategy.
Writing in The Washington Post, Elbridge Colby, a former defense official who is invariably thoughtful and strategic, warns Biden against substituting one crusade for another. It makes no sense, he argues, to end the fruitless quest to unite and democratize Afghanistan to be better able to promote a “global muscular liberalism” (Colby’s words) or ensure that democracy “will and must prevail” (Biden’s words). My guess, though, is that Colby would approve Biden’s decision: He included the Afghan presence as part of that “global muscular liberalism.”
It’s often forgotten that the U.S was moving toward a more confrontational posture with China before the 9/11 attacks. The George W. Bush administration took office convinced that China was becoming a powerful regional competitor and tensions between the two countries intensified in the wake of the April 1, 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and an EP-3 surveillance plane. Beijing appeared to recognize the danger and reversed course several months before the terror attacks, embracing a more cooperative relationship with Washington. Sept. 11 provided China with the opportunity to consolidate that effort.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan served Chinese interests. Not only did it bog down U.S. forces and enmesh them in the region’s politics, but the modicum of stability that resulted helped keep the country from becoming a safe haven for Islamic militants angry at Beijing. A resurgent Taliban that does not have the U.S. as a target will force China to pay more attention to developments in Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see if Beijing is more adept than Washington at navigating the country’s political dynamics.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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