The Washington Post

From enthusiast­ic supporter after 9/11 to strident critic in recent years.

Over past 20 years, he has adopted a far more skeptical view of war

- BY MATT VISER, ASHLEY PARKER AND ANNE GEARAN matt.viser@washpost.com ashley.parker@washpost.com anne.gearan@washpost.com

Joe Biden was sitting on a park bench outside the U.S. Capitol, as helpless in the moment as the rest of the nation. He had just arrived on an Amtrak train, the twin towers smoldering and a violent fire raging at the Pentagon — and his demands to enter the Capitol denied by security guards fearing a fourth plane was heading toward the building.

Outside, the veteran senator sat and fielded calls on his cellphone, eager to show that the foundation­s of American democracy would not be shaken. “I refuse to be part of letting these bastards win,” Biden said that day. At 2:12 p.m., records show, he connected with President George W. Bush for a two-minute call, urging him to return to Washington to display some sense of normalcy.

“This in a sense is the most godawful wake-up call we’ve ever had,” he said that afternoon.

That wake-up call would reshape the world in multiple ways, and few politician­s would play a more central role — or for as long — as Biden, who has been inextricab­ly bound to every stage of the wars over the past two decades: He began as a member of the ensemble in the Senate, became a supporting actor as vice president and finally became the leading man as president.

Biden’s arc on the global war on terrorism largely traces that of the nation — from enthusiast­ic supporter after 9/11 to strident critic in recent years — as he has adopted a far more cautious view of advice coming from the Pentagon.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was among those advocating for war. A decade later, as vice president, he was engaging in increasing­ly heated debates inside the Situation Room when he argued for a more narrowly defined mission and fewer troops than the military wanted, as well as his controvers­ial skepticism about the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. And now, on the 20th anniversar­y of the attacks, he is the president who just brought the final U.S. troops home from Afghanista­n, where the terrorist attacks had been planned.

But Biden is finding that closing the book on the 9/11 era after two decades, as he promised during the 2020 campaign, is fraught with new perils and political uncertaint­y. The chaotic exit from Afghanista­n last month highlighte­d the challenges in the country in a way that Biden argued was the very reason for leaving. But his decision also has triggered warnings — in some cases from the same national security advisers Biden has rebuffed through multiple administra­tions — that his decisions have erased much of the work done over 20 years and effectivel­y returned Afghanista­n to the same place it was before any American involvemen­t.

Biden entered his presidency with an unwavering conviction that he was right to end the “forever wars” and was unlikely to be swayed by any military pitch or nuance.

“I think he brought with him the experience­s that he had on the inside, and maybe some would say to a fault,” said David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama who sat in many meetings with Biden. “But I think he was not going to be receptive to arguments about why we should stay just a little longer, because he had heard these arguments for decades, and was deeply skeptical of them.”

Just as the attacks 20 years ago caused him, and the country, to adopt significan­t foreign policy changes, Biden appears determined as president to mark another shift. He is attempting to oversee an emerging Biden doctrine that deploys fewer troops and relies instead on precision counterter­rorism operations, one that presses diplomatic solutions and depends on the patience of sanctions rather than shock and awe of the military.

Some — particular­ly former military officials who disagree with Biden’s decision, and the execution of it — have warned that Afghanista­n could again become a safe haven for terrorism. They view the Sept. 11 anniversar­y as not so much as a bookend but the end of a chapter in a story that is not yet complete.

“Obviously you’re going to remember all of those who got killed on 9/11 and their families and all of those who fought and sacrificed over these last 20 years to make sure 9/11 wouldn’t happen again and Afghanista­n would not become a safe haven for terrorists,” said Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and defense secretary under Obama. “But you have on the 20th anniversar­y a bitter reality that once again the Taliban control Afghanista­n.”

“I think it is in many ways a wake-up call that the war on terrorism is far from over,” he said.

Like most Americans, Biden began the post-9/11 era determined to avenge the attacks and convinced, albeit with some reservatio­ns, that the country would be safer for the deployment of American military power in Afghanista­n, as well as Iraq.

But as the war in Afghanista­n lingered, Biden’s skepticism increased. Although he had supported the wars in Afghanista­n and Iraq, Biden later came to see both conflicts as damaging to American credibilit­y.

“Clearly he felt like we had to go into Afghanista­n and for all the reasons everyone said,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide and confidant who also was appointed to serve the remainder of Biden’s term in the Senate. “But as soon as we moved from the original objective, which was go in there and make sure they never committed a 9/11 — as soon as that turned into nationbuil­ding, that’s when they lost him.”

While Biden did not join the antiwar protest movement in his youth, his formative experience growing up was the Vietnam War. Increasing­ly, Kaufman said, Biden began to worry about Afghanista­n becoming another Vietnam, with protracted battles costing more American lives.

His son Beau would also soon join the Delaware National Guard, deployed to Iraq in 2008.

“Does it deepen it when your son is in the military? I can’t believe it doesn’t,” Kaufman said. “But he had already made his commitment coming out of Vietnam to the troops, and the importance not to put them in harm’s way without it being vital to our national security.”

By 2008, after several visits to Afghanista­n, Biden began to see the war as faltering, but still winnable.

But he also would begin to doubt the viability of the Afghan government. During one visit just before being sworn in as vice president, Biden and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) had a heated dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Biden ticked through a list of Obama administra­tion complaints, including corruption within Karzai’s government and alleged criminal ties in his own family, but Karzai countered with his own complaints. When he accused Americans of indifferen­ce to civilian deaths, Biden abruptly ended their meal.

“He came back with a pretty clear assessment, and essentiall­y the assessment was highly critical of the governance situation in Afghanista­n at that time,” said Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser under Obama and is the brother of one of Biden’s closest advisers, Mike Donilon. “And that assessment I think informed his view as we went into the discussion­s in 2009 about the right way forward.”

Within the Obama administra­tion debates, Biden was constantly questionin­g and frequently irritating officials at the Pentagon. ThenDefens­e Secretary Robert M. Gates said that Biden was subjecting Obama to “Chinese water torture.”

Biden’s view that the war in Afghanista­n was unwinnable crystalliz­ed during the run-up to the troop surge under Obama, and he has held to that conviction ever since. Announcing in April that he would withdraw American troops within months, Biden did not try to paint the war as a victory. Instead, he suggested the war had become irrelevant — a relic of the post-9/11 hunt for terrorists that no longer fit the threats of 2021.

“We went to Afghanista­n because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said then. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”

Biden shared Obama’s commitment to closing Guantánamo, which remains open as a prison for suspected al-qaeda terrorists 12 years after Obama and Biden took office.

“He sees all that and he probably comes out of the Obama administra­tion frustrated that instead of pulling us out, in some ways we went deeper in,” said University of Pennsylvan­ia law professor Claire Finkelstei­n.

Biden has recommitte­d to closing the prison, but there is no set plan.

Biden followed up with an announceme­nt in July that the American combat mission in Iraq would also end, although some noncombat forces will remain. The withdrawal­s punctuate Biden’s effort to pull the United States out of the long shadow of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the foreign policy era defined by the hunt for terrorists around the world.

“By the way, in a lot of what he talked about 10-plus years ago has turned out to be accurate, about whether or not the conditions were there for a successful counterins­urgency campaign, and they were not there,” Donilon said. “It’s been consistent, it’s rooted in analysis and firsthand observatio­n. It was taken through a rigorous analytical process.”

In a video released Friday, Biden focused remarks on those who died on Sept. 11, 2001 — and the heroism displayed by average Americans on that day — only briefly alluding to fighting terrorism and not mentioning the wars in Afghanista­n and Iraq.

“Unity is what makes us who we are,” Biden said. “To me, that’s the central lesson of Sept. 11. It’s that, at our most vulnerable, in the push and pull of all that makes us human, in the battle for the soul of America, unity is our greatest strength.”

After visits to 9/11 sites on Saturday, Biden is planning, as he did 20 years ago, to go home to Wilmington, Del. That time, he had to catch a ride with then-rep. Robert A. Brady (D-PA.), who was heading to Philadelph­ia. This time, he’ll fly on Marine One.

 ?? JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Joe Biden, then the Democratic presidenti­al nominee, in Shanksvill­e, Pa., last year, above, and as vice president in New York in 2010, left, takes part in Sept. 11 memorial services. Biden’s arc on the global war on terrorism largely traces that of the nation — from enthusiast­ic supporter after 9/11 to strident critic in recent years. In a video released Friday, Biden focused remarks on the heroism of those who died on Sept. 11, not the wars.
JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST Joe Biden, then the Democratic presidenti­al nominee, in Shanksvill­e, Pa., last year, above, and as vice president in New York in 2010, left, takes part in Sept. 11 memorial services. Biden’s arc on the global war on terrorism largely traces that of the nation — from enthusiast­ic supporter after 9/11 to strident critic in recent years. In a video released Friday, Biden focused remarks on the heroism of those who died on Sept. 11, not the wars.
 ?? CHRIS HONDROS/POOL/ASSOCIATED PRESS ??
CHRIS HONDROS/POOL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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