Joe Biden is taking it from all sides these days. Everyone seems to be unhappy with his withdrawal from Afghanistan, from the former president who signed the framework for it and the British warmongers who hoped to piggyback on the US war indefinitely, to the mainstream press that has otherwise been more lapdog than watchdog the past seven months and the top Democrats who have joined the harsh Republican attacks on the pullout.
Too bad for them, because in this case, Biden is right, and they are wrong. Watching the establishment froth at the mouth at the fact that this pointless, appalling war is finally ending — and the drop in support for boththe pullout and the administration that’s come with it — is as good an illustration as you’re going to get of just how politically courageous the president’s decision to withdraw and stick to his guns has been.
This website isn’t in the habit of giving the Biden White House false or undeserved credit. Though in some respects better than anyone could have expected given the president’s past career, the administration’s record so far has fallen far short in a variety areas, from its handling of the pandemic and plans for economic recovery to its Trump-like response to immigration and climate change. But with this decision, Biden has done what the last three presidents have talked about doing but ultimately shied away from, and in the process has broken with not just the hulking inertia of US national security policy, but his own historical shortcomings as a politician.
No one that mattered wanted this: not the military contractors who got fat off the budgetary worm hole the conflict became, not the generals who did everything they could to trick and manipulate every new president into staying, nor the politicians who, when push came to shove, didn’t have the appetite to stand up to either. The withdrawal can be justified on these grounds alone, for showing that an elected president can actually defy a collection of powerful, institutionalized forces arrayed against a policy.
But it’s also justified by the fact that, just by leaving the country and simply not doing anything, the US pullout will contribute more to global peace and security than any of its dubiously labeled “humanitarian interventions” have over the past few decades. There is now underway what seems to be a concerted effort to block out memory of the last twenty years of this war, which have not been good for human rights, and have barely led to any progress for most of the country’s women. It cannot be stressed enough that the brutal reality of foreign occupation and the government it propped up is what allowed the Taliban to roar back stronger than they were two decades ago.
That doesn’t mean Biden can’t be criticized. The US evacuation of its Afghan allies, those directly at risk from reprisal in the case of a Taliban takeover, had been scandalously slow and callous for quite a while before the Afghan government finally collapsed and left Biden’s plans in tatters. While some degree of chaos was probably unavoidable, there are very real and fair criticisms to be made of the planning for withdrawal.
We should also have no illusions about what this pullout actually means. As Biden made clear in his major speech last week and to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, the resources sunk into Afghanistan will now be redirected into an expanded “war on terror” that will target Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other “multiple countries in Africa and Asia.”
And while the US occupation of Afghanistan is over, with all the very real and symbolic ramifications that has for both the country and the US political situation, the war on Afghanistan will continue, as Biden had promised. The president has pledged to keep using the Pentagon’s “counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” in the country: in other words, ongoing special forces raids, bombings, and airstrikes that violate the country’s sovereignty and will keep accidentally killing its people.
So the brutal and counterproductive nature of US foreign policy shows no sign of being dislodged. But the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will fade from our daily thoughts once the jangling keys of another country’s national crisis become the focus of Washington war lust (remember Cuba?), may at least provide the opening to have that conversation, especially as the other two-decade-long “war” on terrorism has proved a similar failure as Afghanistan.
For all its flaws, the Afghanistan withdrawal could be a transformational moment in US political culture, helping to solidify in the public mind the stark limits of US power, and accelerate the country’s slow turn away from endless foreign meddling and toward the many alarming crises it has left festering at home. And it’s a flat reassertion that at the end of the day, the ones who call the shots — even in the especially undemocratic field of US foreign policy — aren’t unelected generals and faceless bureaucrats, but the civilian leaders in whom American voters place their trust to do what they ask for.