The Promise and the Tragedy of Biden’s Afghanistan Speech 1

In many ways, Joe Biden’s speech outlining a final withdrawal from Afghanistan was something antiwar activists, veterans, and analysts have waited to hear from an American president for an entire generation.

Biden did not frame departure reluctantly. He argued for it as a kind of victory over the morass of American strategic thinking that since 9/11 has sustained a bloody misadventure America lost long ago. Speaking somberly and with an appropriate exhaustion, Biden waved away 20 years worth of generals, undersecretaries, legislators, think-tankers and journalists content to catastrophize instead of explaining a route to a sustainable, worthwhile outcome. “I have not heard any good answers to these questions,” said Biden, sounding like someone humbled by his time proposing his share of bellicose non-answers in the post-9/11 Senate. And so, he said, “it is time to end the Forever War.”

But Biden said Forever War; singular. The rest of Biden’s speech made clear that he will leave other Forever Wars in place—merely waged less conspicuously, likely now at further distance, than agonizing ground occupations. Biden captured the bitterness of the experience of the Forever Wars. He framed departure from Afghanistan as a matter of common sense, instead of the typically defensive Democratic posture. But he did not apply that welcome reappraisal of the Afghanistan war to the rest of the post-9/11 suite of counterterrorism conflicts that continue to kill people around the world—none of which have any clearer path to anything resembling victory than does Afghanistan.

Much as Barack Obama traded a caveated withdrawal from Iraq for maintenance of the War on Terror—most visibly in Obama’s case in Afghanistan—so too has Biden defined withdrawal from Afghanistan by the same trade. Like Obama before him, Biden is offering a diminished War on Terror, with its limits defined by national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s ongoing review. As long as Biden chooses restriction instead of abolition, he will sustain Endless Wars, rather than giving them the finality he argued was due American service members, and foreclosing on the reckoning necessary to stop them from happening again.

Biden’s depiction of the Afghanistan war as futile and senseless far surpassed anything Obama was willing to say about Iraq. He channeled the frustrations of the war with the intensity of someone who had tried, unheeded, to get Obama not to escalate it. Biden’s history was dubious at times —“Our objective was clear” at the beginning, he said of a conflict predicated on keeping the Taliban out of power, not simply killing members of al-Qaeda, itself an objective with an unclear endpoint—and functioned as a kind of social peace, by bifurcating 2001-11 as a period when something was achievable and 2011-21 as a period when nothing is. That previewed the limits of Biden’s war abolitionism.

Yet Biden was willing to forthrightly argue against a “conditions-based withdrawal,” the mantra of everyone with birds or stars on their shoulders, in a way no president previously has. For over a decade, administration officials and military officers have tried to shoehorn previous withdrawals by arguing deceptively that the facts merit them, only to be pressured into re-escalation as conditions inevitably deteriorate. Biden instead argued that the U.S. “cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result.” It’s as close as any president since 9/11 has come to acknowledging that America cannot create the conditions it seeks. More concretely, it was the rebuke to the military that Obama was never willing to deliver. That in turn is a signal that when, as is likely, the Taliban conquer Kabul, Biden will not seek to resume the war, as Obama did after the so-called Islamic State conquered Mosul.

Biden’s willingness to ask the right questions about Afghanistan apply just as equally to northeastern Syria; a war in Yemen that itself metastasized into a humanitarian nightmare; a conflict in Somalia against al-Shabaab, now fought over the horizon, that is old enough for a quinceanera; and so many other places.

Since Biden came to office, a number of antiwar observers have wondered why Biden has stopped short of pocketing Donald Trump’s 2020 accord with the Taliban mandating withdrawal—that is, treating it as an inherited obligation for which Trump owns the consequences. Now Biden finally has. It’s “perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself,” but it represents a commitment by the U.S. government, Biden said, giving himself political insulation should the Taliban roll into Kabul, “and that means something.” Then, contradicting himself, Biden redefined the May 1 withdrawal deadline stipulated by the accord into the date when the U.S. “will begin our final withdrawal.” However, the Taliban alone get to decide whether that is a savvy diplomatic formula that gives them space to accept a slower withdrawal, or an intolerable violation of an accord that they, too, took a risk signing. The early indications are ominous.

Just as forcefully as Biden contended that the futility of the Afghanistan war compels its overdue end did he stop himself from applying his reappraisal to the rest of the War on Terror.

Anticipating attacks from the center and the right, Biden portrayed the Afghanistan war as an albatross around the neck of a global U.S. counterterrorism campaign, and one to which it is no longer relevant. Now a “more dispersed” jihadist threat persists, he said, citing al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and Syria, as well as ISIS. “We’ll not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” he pledged, “anywhere they may arise, and they’re in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.” Sullivan’s review will determine the priorities and resources the administration sets for all those threats in all those parts of the globe. But that is a matter of throttling all that state violence, not ending it. None of the metastasized terror threats Biden cited compelled him to rethink a counterterror campaign that, at the least, failed to stop that metastasis, and most often made it worse. Biden’s willingness to ask the right questions about Afghanistan— “when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years?” —apply just as equally to northeastern Syria; a war in Yemen that itself metastasized into a humanitarian nightmare; a conflict in Somalia against al-Shabaab, now fought over the horizon, that is old enough for a quinceanera; and so many other places.

There was also a conspicuous, revealing absence from Biden’s speech, one that speaks to the sort of war America has fought over the past 20 years.

Biden, whose son served in Iraq and later passed away, was appropriately elegiac about the sacrifice of American servicemembers and the Afghan troops they have mentored. He had far less to say about the Afghans who have simply tried to survive the 20-year war, and the uncounted tens or hundreds of thousands who did not. Nor did Biden have anything to say about the civilians elsewhere around the world who will continue to live under the terror of American missile strikes, night raids and the prison cells of U.S. security-force allies, all of which will remain, under the rubric of “not tak[ing] our eye off the terrorist threat.” Throughout the War on Terror, American obligations to the foreigners who have had the burden of U.S. wars they neither sought nor were culpable in sparking have most often been reserved only for those who worked for the U.S. occupations— not that the U.S. kept its promises to them. Never has the U.S. accepted that it owes a debt to those who didn’t serve its interests, but instead suffered and continue to suffer the humiliations and ultimate sanctions of bombs, cages and panopticons. The War on Terror has created tens of millions of refugees worldwide. What does the U.S. owe them, after changing their lives irrevocably?

In his foreign and domestic policies more broadly, Biden has said he seeks a reinvigoration of American democracy. It is there that the implications of retaining the Forever War are most dire. A straight line connects America’s response to 9/11 to the erosion of American democracy, most recently represented by Donald Trump. That is the subject of my forthcoming book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. But seeing tactically outfitted forces from the Department of Homeland Security shoot rubber bullets at the heads of Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland perhaps underscores how the persistence of counterterrorism endangers not only American lives but American freedom. After Jan. 6, there are alarming indications that Democrats want to reorient the war to a new set of domestic targets, just months after Trump attempted to reorient it on Black Lives Matter and antifascists. An endless war is wildfire, destined to burn those who wield it.

Finally, Biden labored mightily to soften the psychological blow of departure. He said America had met its goals in Afghanistan long ago, rendering the war’s persistence a self-inflicted wound. But the truth is America lost its longest-ever war. It foreclosed on battlefield victory the moment Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora into Pakistan two months after the war began. And it ensured broader instability in Afghanistan, which then functioned as quicksand for U.S. troops, by refusing to accept political space for an unvanquished Taliban. Instead the Taliban proved, as did an earlier generation of Afghan fighters against the Soviet Union, that they can triumph over a hubristic enemy.

Presidents are not in the habit of admitting that the U.S. has lost its wars, certainly not while those wars are ongoing. It is surely unrealistic to expect Biden to have done so in this speech. But unless the U.S. comes to see itself as having lost in Afghanistan, it will inevitably enter the next Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to be anti-Vietnams, proving grounds where Donald Rumsfeld fatefully said he “doesn’t do quagmires” and David Petraeus tried to implement his Ph.D. thesis on a more sensible Vietnam campaign. Leaving the broader War on Terror in place will only provide an incentive for avoiding a painful, necessary recognition. So does Biden’s argument that the U.S. will 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.” American hegemony fueled the 9/11 era; it cannot end it.

From the perspective of peace advocates, the optimistic view of Biden’s withdrawal is that his recognition of the bankrupt logic of the Afghanistan war will spread to the rest of the Forever Wars. The fact that Biden, once a premiere example of active liberal complicity in the War on Terror, has ended up being the president to withdraw from Afghanistan indicates that he can get there if he allows himself. But the tragedy is that Biden on Wednesday announced the end of only one Forever War.