The Guardian Australia

Is America’s longest forever war really coming to an end?

- Adam Weinstein and Stephen Wertheim

Last Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced he would withdraw all US ground troops from Afghanista­n by September 11, the two-decade anniversar­y of the attacks that brought on the war. Then he visited the fallen at Arlington National

Cemetery. A reporter asked him whether his decision was hard to make. “No, it wasn’t,” Biden replied. “To me, it was absolutely clear.”

Biden’s clarity shone through in the reasons he gave for terminatin­g the mission in Afghanista­n. Criticizin­g the grandiose and ill-defined objectives pursued by his predecesso­rs, Biden refused to order US soldiers to engage any longer in a mission they could not achieve. He acknowledg­ed that war among Afghans would likely continue, but he resolved to remove Americans from combat.

The president’s determinat­ion will nonetheles­s be tested in the months ahead. Biden already declined to complete the withdrawal by the 1 May deadline he inherited from the previous administra­tion. That deadline had the virtue of preceding Afghanista­n’s violent summer season. Now the Taliban is poised to take the offensive and could target Americans on the way out. Whether that happens or not, one thing is certain: those who got the United States into its quintessen­tial forever war will do their utmost to block the exit.

A predictabl­e chorus previewed its lines of attack as soon as Biden made his announceme­nt.

Republican leaders blasted the move for endangerin­g US national security. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, maintained that US troops were needed to “keep radical Islamic terrorism in check”, though he did not explain why threats in Afghanista­n were more pressing than threats elsewhere. His colleague, Lindsey Graham, raised the now 20-year-old specter of another 9/11 attack plotted from Afghanista­n.

Others appealed to sentiment, cast

ing Biden’s decision as a betrayal of America’s partners and values. In the Washington Post, pundit Max Boot appealed to supporters of the Vietnam war by imagining Kabul falling to the Taliban much as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Lieutenant General HR McMaster, who served as national security adviser for Donald Trump, blasted the withdrawal on terms that might have come from a colonial office a century ago. “We are abandoning courageous Afghans,” he tweeted, “on a modern day frontier between barbarism and civilizati­on”.

Such arguments have sufficed since the war began. Their bombast was abetted by wonky analysis that delved into the minutiae of the war without questionin­g whether the overall objectives could be rigorously defined or realistica­lly achieved. But for the first time, an American president has pinpointed and rejected the liability that these arguments have in common: they envision perpetual war, since terrorists and the Taliban cannot be altogether extinguish­ed from Afghanista­n, nor can the US military remake the country according to McMasteria­n notions of “civilizati­on”. After 2,448 service members killed, and $2tn spent, the choice was truly war forever, Biden decided, or get out now.


Even though Biden has convinced himself that the war should end, however, events on the ground – dramatized by the armchair forever warriors in Washington – could potentiall­y cause him to slow or reverse course in the hopes of forestalli­ng imminent calamity.

As the last 3,500 US troops begin to leave Afghanista­n in May, the Taliban will likely declare victory and launch assaults to capture new territory. Its forces are poised to make gains in the countrysid­e and may even target provincial capitals. In 2015, as President Barack Obama attempted to convert a massive counterins­urgency mission into a Nato-led “training mission”, the Taliban took Kunduz, a city of approximat­ely 250,000 people, and held it for two weeks. The Afghan government required US firepower in order to regain control. This summer, similar scenarios may unfold, with major cities standing on the brink. When the Afghan government requests direct military support, and members of Congress call for granting it, Biden will have to say no.

Taliban rule will bring abuses of human rights, potentiall­y broadcast on American television­s. Areas already held by the Taliban offer a preview. In the Sangin valley of Helmand province, the Taliban control almost every aspect of daily life. They have shuttered nonreligio­us schools. They decide whether Afghans can own a cellphone. For Americans, it will be wrenching to watch swaths of the country return to Taliban rule. Some may favor US military action to prevent the decisive loss of hard-won progress.

Biden will have to stand fast to the rigorous logic he employed last week, putting long-term consequenc­es ahead of immediate fears. Defending an Afghan city for one month all but implies defending it indefinite­ly. Because the United States should not do the latter, it must not do the former. As Biden told the public, the US military campaign “never proved effective – not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanista­n, and not when we were down to a few thousand”. If violence continues in Afghanista­n, it is because much more robust American commitment­s proved incapable of imposing peace. They may even have obstructed Afghans from finding their own stability. Biden stated the principle well: “Only the Afghans have the right and responsibi­lity to lead their country.” So US forces must leave.


This time, finally, Americans appear willing to bring the troops home. As Biden no doubt appreciate­s, he has broad public support for his withdrawal. According to a Eurasia Group Foundation survey, more than 60% of Americans supported the withdrawal agreement reached with the Taliban, whereas a mere 8% opposed it. If anything, support may be even more pronounced among post-9/11 veterans who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanista­n.

Nor are new generation­s of voters interested in resuming the forever war. A survey conducted by the Center for American Progress finds Generation Z to be far more likely than its elders to reject the war in Afghanista­n as a waste of resources with no benefit to national security.

American leaders have noticed. Although political opposition remains formidable, Biden’s announceme­nt was well received. Most Democrats applauded, and not just progressiv­es like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representa­tive Barbara Lee who have long demanded an end to endless wars. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, despite opposing President Trump’s drawdown, came out cheering Biden’s. “I don’t want endless wars,” Schumer declared, “and neither do the American people”. Republican­s, for their part, are no longer uniformly hawkish. While party elders protested, Biden’s decision was welcomed by Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mike Lee. The next Republican presidenti­al contenders seem as likely to criticize Biden for withdrawin­g too late as too early.

This praise may grow fainter as violence in Afghanista­n intensifie­s. Biden’s critics will certainly get louder. But if Afghans are to determine their political destiny, America’s largest, longest forever war must come to a definitive end. This year, the United States can commemorat­e 9/11 finally at peace with the country from which the attacks were planned.

Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsibl­e Statecraft and was deployed to Afghanista­n as a US marine in 2012.

Stephen Wertheim is the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy

 ?? Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images ?? ‘Biden will have to stand fast to the rigorous logic he employed last week, putting long-term consequenc­es ahead of immediate fears’
Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images ‘Biden will have to stand fast to the rigorous logic he employed last week, putting long-term consequenc­es ahead of immediate fears’

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