Lyndon Johnson decided not to run again. He knew he couldn’t fix the disaster that Vietnam had become. And he’d lost the public on what he had tried – lots of troops and impressive body-counts. Nixon promised “peace with honor” and carpet-bombed Hanoi at Christmas and later invaded Cambodia and got that Paris peace agreement that meant nothing at all, and after he resigned in disgrace over another matter, Gerald Ford had to pull the plug. We left. Saigon fell. Vietnam was one country again – a communist one. On May 7, 1954, the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell after a four-month siege led by the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. The French left. This was pointless. French-Indochina was pointless. They’d worry about Algeria. That was closer to home. But that was pointless too. And they should have warned us about Ho Chi Minh. Maybe they did. But it doesn’t matter. We went in. We’d have to figure out that the whole thing was pointless all on our own. By April, 1975, we got it, and we got out. The last helicopter left that roof in Saigon.
But no dominos fell. The commies didn’t take over the world. The new Vietnam aligned with no one in particular. They’re a trading partner now. And the hardcore commies imploded. The Soviet Union finally fell. Their pointless years trying to make Afghanistan into something useful to them were part of why that happened. And communism wasn’t that good of an idea in the first place. Their economy collapsed. The cold war ended.
But the price was high. The price was pointless wars, always lost, at tremendous cost.
Why not just stop that nonsense? President Biden, an old man now, who has seen endless nonsense, as all old men have, seems to have had enough of that. The New York Times reports this:
President Biden will withdraw American combat troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, declaring an end to the nation’s longest war and overruling warnings from his military advisers that the departure could prompt a resurgence of the same terrorist threats that sent hundreds of thousands of troops into combat over the past 20 years.
In rejecting the Pentagon’s push to remain until Afghan security forces can assert themselves against the Taliban, Mr. Biden forcibly stamped his views on a policy he has long debated but never controlled. Now, after years of arguing against an extended American military presence in Afghanistan, the president is doing things his way, with the deadline set for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
A senior Biden administration official said the president had come to believe that a “conditions-based approach” would mean that American troops would never leave the country.
His plan? Just stop this. But there is context:
Mr. Biden’s decision would pull all American troops out of Afghanistan 20 years after President George W. Bush ordered an invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, with the goal to punish Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda followers, who were sheltered in Afghanistan by their Taliban hosts.
The war was launched with widespread international support – but it became the same long, bloody, unpopular slog that forced the British to withdraw from Afghanistan in the 19th century and the Soviet Union to retreat in the 20th.
And this particular war was particularly stupid:
Nearly 2,400 American troops have died in Afghanistan in a conflict that has cost about $2 trillion. Mr. Biden’s Democratic supporters in Congress praised the withdrawal, even as Republicans said it would risk American security.
“The U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001 to defeat those who attacked the U.S. on 9/11,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said in a statement. “It is now time to bring our troops home, maintain humanitarian and diplomatic support for a partner nation, and refocus American national security on the most pressing challenges we face.”
Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and the chairman of the progressive veterans’ group VoteVets, said that “words cannot adequately express how huge this is for troops and military families, who have weathered deployment after deployment, with no end in sight, for the better part of two decades.”
Or maybe it was stupid:
“This is a reckless and dangerous decision,” said Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Arbitrary deadlines would likely put our troops in danger, jeopardize all the progress we’ve made, and lead to civil war in Afghanistan – and create a breeding ground for international terrorists.”
But this may be as good a time as any to bug out:
The Afghan central government is unable to halt Taliban advances, and American officials offer a grim assessment of prospects for peace in the country. Still, American intelligence agencies say they do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to strike the United States from Afghanistan. That assessment has been critical to the Biden administration as it decided to withdraw most of the remaining forces from the country.
A senior administration official said the troop withdrawal would begin before May 1 and conclude before the symbolic date of Sept. 11. Any attacks on withdrawing NATO troops, the official said, would be met with a forceful response.
NATO? Yes, this is a withdrawal of all Western troops, but it’s time:
The American-led war in Afghanistan was won, and lost, several times over the past two decades.
The initial campaign – in which relatively small numbers of Special Operations forces partnered with local Afghan militias supported by devastating American air attacks – was quickly successful in forcing Qaeda and Taliban leaders to flee, mostly into Pakistan, by late 2001 and early 2002.
Many military analysts praised the mission – its swift success with a deployment of only limited numbers of ground troops – as a near masterpiece of planning and war-fighting.
And then things changed:
The war then evolved, and expanded, from a counterterrorism mission to one devoted to nation-building, democratization and securing rights for women. But the inability to create effective local security forces allowed the Taliban to stage a comeback, prompting a significant surge of foreign troops back into the country starting in 2009, an effort that amounted to a second invasion.
Indeed, areas were cleared of Taliban fighters. But that success, too, proved unsustainable. And in another front in the United States’ post-9/11 wars, the initial victory in Afghanistan may have led the Bush administration to believe that its decision to invade Iraq in early 2003 would also bring similar, swift success.
So now the plan is this:
Biden administration officials said that the United States would reposition American troops in the region to keep an eye on Afghanistan and on the Taliban, and would hold the Taliban to a commitment that there would not be a re-emergence of a terrorist threat on American or Western interests from Afghanistan.
But it was unclear what that meant or how far those repositioned forces would go to protect, for example, the fragile Afghan government or Afghan national security forces.
Okay, that’s not really a plan, but it will have to do:
Mr. Biden’s top aides have said he is keenly aware of the risks of a total security collapse transpiring in Kabul, the Afghan capital, if all Western troops leave, and he has privately described a fall-of-Saigon scenario as haunting.
But in private meetings in recent weeks, the president has also questioned whether the small remaining contingent of Americans can accomplish anything after 20 years during which almost 800,000 U.S. troops have been deployed, or whether it will ever be possible to bring them home.
So it will come down to this:
The United States maintains a constellation of air bases in the Persian Gulf region, as well as in Jordan, and the Pentagon operates a major regional air headquarters in Qatar. But launching long-range bomber or armed drone missions is risky and time-consuming, and not necessarily as effective in combating hostile targets that pop up suddenly or have time to move out of striking distance.
Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats, current and former American officials said.
But that may not fix this:
Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that began in September in Doha, Qatar, have mostly stalled. In a bid to jump-start the process once more, the Biden administration has pushed for a new round of talks in Turkey – tentatively scheduled for April 24. The idea is for both sides to agree to some sort of framework for a future government and a lasting cease-fire, but experts think that is unlikely as the Taliban believe they can defeat the Afghan militarily.
Over the past year, Afghan security forces have lost territory from repeated Taliban assaults, and have relied on American air power to beat back the insurgents. With the stakes high and the Afghan government’s credibility waning, militias – once the main power holders during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s – have rearmed and reappeared, even challenging Afghan security forces in some areas. Many Afghans have seen their emergence as a troubling sign of what lies ahead for their country.
This will not end well, but it never could end well, and Biden knows it. David Sanger argues that Biden has decided to change everything:
President Biden’s decision to pull all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 was rooted in his belief that there is no room for continuing 20 years of failed efforts to remake that country, especially at a moment when he wants the United States focused on a transformational economic and social agenda at home and other fast-evolving threats from abroad.
Though Mr. Biden would never use the term, getting out of Afghanistan is part of his own version of “America First,” one that differs drastically from how his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, used the phrase. His years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president convinced him that the United States-led effort in Afghanistan was destined to collapse of its own weight.
And that’s not new. Biden seems to like looking at the future:
Time and again during the Obama administration, Mr. Biden lost arguments to reduce the American presence to a minimal counterterrorism force. But after less than three months as president, Mr. Biden came to the determination that only a full withdrawal – with no link to political conditions on the ground – would wrench America’s attention away from the conflict of the past two decades in favor of the very different kinds he expects in the next two.
He has defined his presidency’s goals as releasing the country from the grip of a virus that is morphing into new variants, seizing an opportunity to bolster economic competitiveness against China and proving to the world that American democracy can still rise to great challenges.
And in that vision, the priorities are fighting poverty and racial inequities and increasing investment in broadband, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and 5G communications – not using the military to prop up the government of President Ashraf Ghani. It means thinking about infrastructure instead of force protection, and defending commercial supply chains instead of military supply lines.
That’s asking for a whole different way of thinking, but that’s better than being stupid:
Mr. Biden’s approach carries clear risks. The annual worldwide threat assessment published by his intelligence chiefs on Tuesday morning, as word of his decision leaked, explicitly warned that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay” if the American-led coalition withdraws. Administration officials said that raised the specter of something akin to the 1975 fall of Saigon, after the United States gave up on another ill-considered war.
But Mr. Biden’s decision makes clear his belief that contending with a rising China takes precedence over the idea that with just a few more years in Afghanistan, and a few more billions of dollars, the United States could achieve with a few thousand troops what it could not achieve with hundreds of thousands and the more than $2 trillion already poured into two decades of warfighting and nation building.
That’s the calculation:
After Mr. Biden declared at a news conference last month that “We’ve got to prove democracy works,” he went on to describe a foreign policy that was focused on restoring America’s reputation for getting big things done. “China is out-investing us by a long shot,” the president noted, “because their plan is to own that future.”
Indeed, no one celebrated the American involvement in Afghanistan, or Iraq, more than the Chinese – conflicts that kept Americans up at night worrying about casualties and taking control of distant provinces, while Beijing focused on spreading its influence in regions of the world where America was once the unquestioned dominant power.
Several years ago, at China’s Central Party School, a recently retired Chinese military officer said his colleagues marveled at how the United States was wasting its assets.
On Tuesday, one of Mr. Biden’s top advisers suggested that the president had come to the same conclusion.
And now it’s time to drag the American public, kicking and screaming about all those towel-heads out to kill us all, into the new world:
In the end, the argument that won the day is that the future of Kenosha is more important than defending Kabul. And if Mr. Biden can truly focus the country on far bigger strategic challenges – in space and cyberspace, against declining powers like Russia and rising ones like China – he will have finally moved the country out of its post-9/11 fixation, where counterterrorism overrode every other foreign policy and domestic imperative.
That would be a real change in the way Americans think about the purpose of the country’s influence and power, and the nature of national security.
Can he do that? David Ignatius notes this:
Biden sometimes comes across as a genial gaffer, pliable in the way of a career politician. But Tuesday’s announcement shows that he is also a stubborn and resolute man. Friends say he was bruised by the Afghanistan battles of a decade ago and took away some grudges. When convinced he’s right, he’s prepared to take big risks – as he has this week.
And this is a big risk:
The military, for all its worries about withdrawal, has hated the meat grinder of Afghanistan. Most of today’s Army and Marine commanders have fought there, and many of their sons and daughters have, too. They share Biden’s desire to get the hell out. But that’s checked by a feeling that the only thing that’s worse than remaining in what seems an unwinnable stalemate is pulling out troops — and then having to go back in.
That’s what happened in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. They were back five years later, dealing with the slaughterhouse that was the Islamic State. And if Biden was right about Afghanistan 10 years ago, he was dead wrong about getting out of Iraq, which he also strongly advocated.
Will he be right this time? Who knows? No one can know, but this won’t be easy:
The downside is easy to imagine: a spiral of violence in which provincial capitals fall, one by one, leading to a deadly battle for Kabul – a fight in which the people who believed most in the United States’ intervention will be at greatest risk, and pleading for help. Closing our eyes and ears to that catastrophic situation – turning away from the desperate appeals, especially from the women of Afghanistan, who fear new oppression – will require cold hearts and strong stomachs.
Still, all is not lost:
Biden decided this week that Afghanistan’s fate, in the end, will be determined by its people. Those who suspect that the country will quickly tumble back into the Middle Ages and a primitive version of Islam are wrong, I suspect. The years of war have modernized Afghanistan. It’s now a richer, more urban country, connected by modern communications. People who gained their freedom in the two decades under a U.S. umbrella won’t give it up easily.
And of course warfare has evolved in the last twenty years:
The real test of Biden’s policy is whether the core national interest he has embraced – of limiting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to preventing another 9/11-type attack on the homeland – can be achieved without U.S. troops on the ground.
Officials have been arguing this question back and forth for weeks. Can the CIA maintain a clandestine force in Afghanistan that’s strong enough to operate against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups? Will drones be effective, if they must now be based in the Persian Gulf, with long flight times to Afghanistan and much shorter periods over potential target areas? We don’t know the answers. Biden is rolling the dice.
But technology may save the day now.
That may be the only option left. Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent see this:
Is 20 years long enough for a war we could never win?
President Biden apparently thinks so, which is why on Tuesday his administration announced that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11, the anniversary of the attacks that produced America’s longest war.
Though he won’t say it this way, this is an admission of America’s defeat. And it’s long overdue.
There are bigger issues. What are we doing where, and why? It’s time to rethink all this:
The defeat in Afghanistan has many parents. Biden is the fourth president to preside over this futile war. And while there’s plenty of good and bad in the way the military and civilian leaders carried it out, at bottom they were attempting the impossible, and inevitably failed.
Much of the time in politics and government, when things don’t turn out the way we want, wise people claim that if only we had listened to them, everything would have gone better. Others tell us we now know what might have worked, but only in hindsight.
But this is one of those unusual situations in which nobody can say that it all would have worked out if a different plan had been followed. That was the whole problem: There was no better plan. There were only different varieties of losing.
Who knew? But we finally got it:
Some people understood that even in 2001 – but not very many. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with the knowledge that the Taliban had allowed al-Qaeda to operate from within their country, support for an invasion was overwhelming; this Gallup poll taken just after the conflict began showed Americans supporting the use of ground troops by a margin of 80-18.
To so many it felt righteous and triumphant: We’d strike back at those who struck us, and no one could say we weren’t justified. Those who warned we’d be pulled into the same quagmire that mired the Soviet Union there for nine years were dismissed as naive and unpatriotic. We’re smarter and more skilled, so of course we’d succeed.
So here we are 20 years later, having spent trillions of dollars there and lost thousands of lives, and for what?
Our departure will make it possible if not likely that the Taliban will retake control of the country, imposing their brutality on a populace that has endured so much suffering. But if that happens, it will happen whether we go now or wait a year or five years or ten.
Biden and his brain trust appear to be admitting to this fundamental truth.
But there are bigger truths:
Biden set a very broad goal for himself, when he said the following back in 2018: “It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure.”
But truly ending the forever wars requires a deep change in mind-set, says Stephen Miles, executive the director of Win Without War.
“The Afghanistan news is a real first step in turning candidate Biden’s promises into President Biden’s policies,” Miles tells us. “The real test is, Will this news be the beginning of a more fundamental shift, which leaves behind this mind-set that we can bomb and kill our way out of the challenge of terrorism?”
We can’t bomb and kill our way out of any of this. We couldn’t do that in Vietnam. We couldn’t do that in Iraq or Afghanistan. No one can do that anymore. The world changed. Biden may be almost eighty years old but he understood this new world. Kevin Drum sees this:
There has never been a good solution to the problem of Afghanistan. For whatever reason – and we will be studying it for years – we cannot defeat the Taliban using the resources the American public will tolerate. It’s even possible we can’t defeat the Taliban, period. A stalemate is the best we can do, and a stalemate will last forever since, after 20 years, it’s obvious that the establishment Afghan regime will never be able to produce either a consensus government or a standalone military capable of standing up to the Taliban.
This has been clear for a long time. Obama knew it. Trump knew it. But neither had the courage of their convictions. If the US pulls out completely, the Taliban will overrun Afghanistan in a year or so. In other words, the United States will have definitively lost a war it spent 20 years fighting. No president is willing to be the guy who approved that.
But now Biden says he’s going to do it. If he follows through on this, it will be a mark of singular courage.
Or it’s no more than common sense. There’s no need to fight long pointless wars, always lost, at tremendous cost. There’s too much else to do. It’s time to move on.