From Moral Responsibility to Magical Thinking: How Biden Changed His Mind on Afghanistan
After 9/11, Biden embraced the idea that U.S. troops should leave the country better than how they found it. Now, as president, he’s withdrawing them regardless.
I. “I could tell he was thinking of his own granddaughters.”
U.S. President Joe Biden was once committed to helping Afghanistan get back on its feet—and in the early days, he thought former U.S. President George W. Bush was too. In November 2001, Biden, then-chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was sitting in the Oval Office listening to Bush talk enthusiastically about an idea he had once denigrated: nation-building.
The Taliban were on the run, hammered relentlessly by U.S. bombs, and the brief war known as “Operation Enduring Freedom” was all but won after only a month. The subject of discussion was what would happen to Afghanistan afterward. Biden nodded approvingly as Bush insisted this wasn’t going to be like 1989, when the United States discarded the country like a used cartridge after years of supplying the mujahedeen in their successful war against the Soviets, opening the way to Taliban rule.
Biden endorsed this idea: This time, the United States needed to stay. The president was “going on about the long-term commitment we have to make,” Biden recalled in an interview with me on Dec. 20, 2001. “I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s going to cost billions of dollars. I think we’re going to have to have a multilateral force in there.’ And I think he and I are mostly in agreement.”
In truth, they weren’t. In the months that followed, Biden found himself increasingly dismayed by Bush’s swift turn toward Iraq and neglect of Afghanistan, according to former aides. Biden, by most accounts, was emotionally invested in Afghanistan at the time. In January 2002, he became the first U.S. member of Congress to visit Kabul. He was taken to a new girls’ school, an experience that moved him immensely since such schools had been banned under Taliban rule, said former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who accompanied him on that visit. Added Biden’s former Senate spokesperson Norm Kurz, who was also on the trip, “I could tell he was thinking of his own young granddaughters.”
In the early 2000s, Biden tried to persuade then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to do more to bring Afghanistan into the modern world. But Rumsfeld insisted on a “small footprint” and occasional counterterrorism strikes from the air that cynics called “whack-a-mole” tactics. Rumsfeld simply wouldn’t listen to Biden’s arguments for stepping up aid and a U.S. troop presence, Kurz recalled.
“He had been very much of the view that you shouldn’t go in and just kill people and leave,” said Jonah Blank, another former Biden aide who accompanied him on that trip as the senator’s Afghanistan expert. “He felt in both moral and geopolitical terms that if you are invading a country, intervening militarily, then you do have a responsibility to leave it better than you found it.”
But as Washington turned its attention to Iraq—and Biden eventually became one of those who authorized that war—things began to go seriously wrong in Afghanistan. The Taliban crept back from the mountains and formed the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leaders’ council across the border in Pakistan. By 2004, when the Taliban insurgency began again in earnest, the United States was entirely consumed with its own insurgency in Iraq. Today, things are completely out of hand. Funded by opium sales and the Pakistani intelligence service, the resurgent Taliban are believed to exert influence or control over at least half the country. They are able to strike freely even in the Afghan capital, Kabul, especially since the militant group has deeply infiltrated the demoralized Afghan national security forces.
II. “You don’t end a war by withdrawing your forces.”
Now a disillusioned Biden has adopted a very different point of view—circling back around to an approach that appears uncomfortably similar to Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s. This week, Biden announced that all U.S. forces would withdraw by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. NATO immediately followed Biden’s lead on Wednesday, saying its roughly 7,000 non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan would be departing within a few months.
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan; two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth,” Biden said in a speech from the White House on Wednesday. “Our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” he added, without being specific.
But no one has any illusions about what is certain to be at least a partial return of Taliban power, even though Biden sent U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghanistan the day after his speech to pledge the United States’ “ongoing commitment” to the elected Afghan government. The first to suffer could well be girls and women, who the Taliban, in their past incarnation in power from 1996 to 2001, kept out of school and public sight. Women were also forced to wear burqas, an all-encompassing garment that hides even their faces.
Some inside the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community fear a premature declaration of success and a too-rapid withdrawal could open Biden to the same criticisms that former U.S. President Barack Obama suffered when he pulled out of Iraq in 2011 (on Biden’s advice), only to see the Islamic State fill the vacuum. Others fear that Biden’s decision could potentially leave the United States in a place similar to where it was pre-9/11: facing a Taliban-dominated host nation for al Qaeda. Despite its promises otherwise, many experts believe the Taliban continue to nurture a close relationship with what remains of the terrorist group.
Crocker, who twice served as ambassador to Afghanistan, said he thinks the usually clear-eyed Biden is engaged in “magical thinking” about Afghanistan—especially if he believes Washington has any leverage left with the Taliban.
For starters, the Afghan peace talks are now doomed, Crocker said, who retired recently as one of the United States’ most esteemed diplomats. “The Taliban have no incentive whatsoever to negotiate anything,” he said. Turkey announced earlier this week that representatives of both the Afghan government and the Taliban would continue talks in Istanbul later this month, but Blinken acknowledged Thursday there was as yet no “definitive” response from the Taliban about their participation. And on Wednesday, Biden’s own CIA director, William Burns, told Congress “when the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact.”
“I think Biden is going to look back and regret he made that decision and that speech,” Crocker said. “You don’t end a war by withdrawing your forces. The war grinds on without you.”
III. “This dinner is over.”
What changed for Biden? By the accounts of several people who know the president well, he is at the tail end of a long period of deepening disillusionment with Afghanistan, a process that started with the Afghan leader that Washington installed in the early 2000s, Hamid Karzai.
Over time, Biden came to believe that because of endemic corruption, the United States was throwing billions of dollars—and nearly 2,500 U.S. lives lost along with more than 20,000 wounded—into a nation that was irremediably backward and broken, ruled by medieval warlords and fundamentalist sensibilities. On Friday, Brown University’s Costs of War project reported the war has cost $2.26 trillion in all since the United States invaded on Oct. 7, 2001. According to a report last fall by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “waste, fraud, and abuse” has cost the United States at least $19 billion in reconstruction money—about 30 percent of the amount invested and reviewed by Congress—in Afghanistan since 2002.
“I think it was a gradual process between 2002 and 2009,” Blank said, “as it became more clear that Karzai wasn’t providing the civilian leadership. Biden’s distaste boiled up by 2008 and 2009.”
In February 2008, Biden traveled again to Afghanistan along with his close Senate colleagues John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, and they were invited to dinner with Karzai at his palace. The three Senate heavyweights wanted to address the corruption in Karzai’s government, including runaway graft and alleged narcotics connections. After Karzai denied such problems existed, an enraged Biden threw down his napkin, slammed the table with his hand, and walked out, declaring, “This dinner is over.”
“The big rupture for him came in January 2009. That was when he took his only trip as vice president elect,” Blank said. Convinced that stabilizing Afghanistan was hopeless, Biden became the lone senior official to argue early in the Obama administration that another troop “surge” would be a waste. As Obama wrote in his recent memoir, A Promised Land, Biden expressed little faith in the Afghan government’s reliability under Karzai and later, current President Ashraf Ghani.
“Whatever the mix of reasons, he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay a deployment,” Obama wrote. Biden lost that debate initially: Obama raised U.S. troop levels to nearly 100,000 troops. But then, Obama began dramatically cutting back in his second term as the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency strategy—winning over hearts and minds with humanitarian aid and a multibillion-dollar military policy to “clear, hold, and build” cities and towns—failed badly in most parts of the country, appearing to vindicate Biden’s skeptical counsel.
Even before he became vice president, Biden was pushing Obama toward defining an “endpoint.” At a hearing with the then-Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in the spring of 2008, Biden counseled Obama to lower expectations for what Iraq might look like after the U.S. withdrawal—and that approach later shaped both of their approaches to Afghanistan. Obama, a freshman senator who was by then a presidential candidate, earned media praise by telling Petraeus: “When you have finite resources, you’ve got to define your goals tightly and modestly. I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint.” Biden later told me the language used by Obama was written, behind the scenes, by him: “He asked for my advice,” Biden explained.
Biden also became leery of the endless arguments from the Pentagon about waiting for the proper “conditions” before withdrawing. As the president suggested in his speech Wednesday, he has simply been listening for too many years to the same talk. Biden noted that in 2014, NATO issued a declaration affirming Afghan security forces would take responsibility for the country’s security by the end of that year. That didn’t really happen either; U.S. special operations and NATO forces, even while they were nominally “advising” the Afghan forces, often found themselves leading the fight.
“So when will it be the right moment to leave?” Biden asked. “One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? Ten, 20, $30 billion more on the trillion we’ve already spent? Not now? That’s how we got here.”
Blank said even in the early days, Biden saw there would be a need for a hard-headed counterterrorism approach alongside school openings. “He was not of the neoconservative school,” Blank said. “He never thought we would have to stay there 20 years and that unless we created a little America, then we haven’t done our job.”
Once he became president, Biden swiftly signaled his intentions when he kept on former U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. Last year, Khalilzad negotiated a controversial agreement with the Taliban: U.S. troops would leave by May 1 in exchange for the Taliban’s commitment to disavow al Qaeda and enter into peace talks with an Afghan delegation. The Taliban have largely failed to follow through on these promises, though Biden says the U.S. withdrawal will begin on May 1 anyway. In the early weeks of Biden’s presidency, Crocker and others said it appeared an internal debate was underway about whether to embrace the pact. Before Blinken was confirmed by the Senate, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called his counterpart in Kabul, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, reaffirming Biden’s intent to work with the Afghan government and “review” Khalilzad’s deal.
That position appeared to shift after Blinken—who has been with Biden all along on his Afghanistan odyssey since his time as staff director of the Foreign Relations Committee—came on board. Last month, Blinken sent a rather undiplomatic and peremptory letter to Ghani, reelected in 2019, suggesting he share power with the Taliban in a “new, inclusive” government. The letter itself was a striking breach of protocol since, as secretary of state, Blinken is not supposed to be addressing a head of state as an equal.
In his speech this week, Biden acknowledged the second-guessers. “I know there are many who will loudly insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust U.S. military presence to stand as leverage,” he said. “We gave that argument a decade. It’s never proved effective, not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan and not when we were down to a few thousand.”
Biden’s announcement could also accelerate the end of “forever wars” against other terrorist groups around the world like the Islamic State if they are no longer deemed to pose a strategic threat to the United States. In his speech, the president cited the rise of new challenges such as China and global health, saying, “We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20.”
In the end, Biden said, his decision was about ending the needless sacrifice of young Americans like his late son Beau, who served in Iraq and whom he mentioned in his speech.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” he said. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. [Osama] Bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is degraded in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war.”
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh