OK, I’ll say it again: I was wrong about Joe Biden.
During the 2020 presidential primaries, I was aghast at the prospect of an Iraq War supporter winning the Democratic nomination. I reminded readers that Biden was the only Democratic candidate “to have voted for the Iraq War” and had “(falsely) claimed the United States had ‘no choice but to eliminate the threat’ from Saddam Hussein.” I said his “hawkish” foreign policy record should be “disqualifying.”
I never expected Biden to be anything other than belligerent once he was seated inside the White House Situation Room.
Yet as of Tuesday evening, Biden has done something that three previous presidents either wouldn’t or couldn’t: ended the longest war in American history. The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on schedule and ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
But Biden has also done something that no other president has managed to do in living memory: He has stood up to the generals.
In 2017, Donald Trump’s first year in office, the new Republican president’s instinct was to wind down the war in Afghanistan, but his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, pressured him to send more troops. McMaster reportedly presented Trump “with a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, to show him that Western norms had existed there before and could return.”
In 2009, Barack Obama’s first year in office, the new Democratic president debated with his advisers whether to “surge” troops into Afghanistan. On one side, Obama had a bevy of military leaders — Adm. Mike McMullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command; and Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — urging him to escalate.
On the other side, Obama had Vice President Biden, who, according to Obama’s memoir, viewed the conflict as a “dangerous quagmire.” On one occasion during the discussions about a surge, Obama recalls, Biden grabbed him by the arm and said, “Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president.” He leaned into Obama’s face and whispered, “Don’t let them jam you.”
Less than three months later, Obama signed off on sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Fast-forward to 2021, Joe Biden’s first year in office. The new Democratic president could have easily ditched the February 2020 agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in Qatar to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year. He could have listened to his top military advisers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired general, and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, both of whom reportedly urged him to keep a small force of 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But Biden didn’t let them “jam” him. In April, he ignored the entreaties of his top generals and announced that all U.S. troops would be leaving Afghanistan ahead of Sept. 11, 2021. Since the Aug. 15 fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban and the chaos in and around the Kabul airport, a chorus of hawkish generals, journalists, pundits, comedians, Afghans, Republicans and even Democrats has lambasted Biden for his handling of the pullout and for sticking to his Aug. 31 pullout date. His approval rating has taken a hit, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wants to impeach him.
Yet Biden didn’t budge. Lest we forget, it’s shamefully easy for presidents to start wars and much, much harder to end them. Biden’s decision to withdraw now is not, as his critics say, “an indelible stain on his presidency” or a “cowardly betrayal” or a sign of “weakness.” It is perhaps the boldest foreign policy move by a president in my lifetime.
Other leftist critics of Biden agree. Podcaster Kyle Kulinski, who says he “despises” Biden, tweeted: “It takes tremendous courage to put your middle finger up to the CIA, the pentagon, defense contractors & leadership of *both* parties.”
Lest we forget, it’s shamefully easy for presidents to start wars and much, much harder to end them.
He’s right. Biden’s “tremendous courage” was tested last week when a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport killed more than 113 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. There was intense pressure on the president to extend the deadline for departure. He resisted. “Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war,” Biden told the press corps at the White House.
It is worth pointing out that more than 100,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan since the middle of August, including the vast majority of U.S. citizens who had wanted to leave the country. That milestone came in the wake of claims that Biden was abandoning our Afghan allies and suggestions that evacuating even 50,000 people would be impossible.
To be clear: The withdrawal didn’t come without one last American-made tragedy, when 10 innocent civilians, including kids, were reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike Sunday. It was a final reminder of the horrors caused by our two-decade bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
Biden and his advisers also, of course, should have prepared better for the mass evacuations. And it was a monumental error of judgment for the president to have expressed so much confidence in the Afghan government and security forces, to the point where he foolishly declared in July that there would “be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy.”
But in which alternative universe could Biden have single-handedly ended the Bush/Obama/Trump 20-year war in Afghanistan without a resurgent Taliban taking over the country? Without scenes of desperate Afghans and Americans being airlifted from the Kabul airport? Without violent attacks on departing U.S. troops?
President Joe Biden didn’t lose this war. It was lost in October 2001, when President George W. Bush refused to accept the Taliban’s offer to hand over Osama bin Laden to a neutral third country, and in December 2001, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to accept Taliban surrender terms.
It was lost as U.S. politicians, diplomats and generals, as the Afghanistan Papers revealed, “failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan ... making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
He may have been wrong about Iraq in 2003, but Biden is right about Afghanistan in 2021. “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?” he asked the day after Kabul fell. “How many more lives — American lives — is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?”
He vowed to “not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past,” mistakes that include “attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.”
America’s longest war is over. And it was the guy whom I once dismissed as “the hawkish chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who provided cover for Bush's dodgy and dishonest arguments about WMDs” who, astonishingly, gets credit for that. To borrow a line from the president himself, it’s a “BFD.”