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Afghanistan: Biden Picks Up A Million Dollar Bill Trump Left on the Ground

President Biden, a longtime Afghan War skeptic, announced the completion of the withdrawal initiated by his predecessor.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the more than 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in the Cross Hall of the White House February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

The new president wanted out of Afghanistan. 

He had just won a narrow election few had the foresight to prognosticate correctly less than two years earlier. A definite plank of his appeal was castigation of America’s farrago of endless wars. In his run-up to power, he had proclaimed, “no more wasted lives,” and that he agreed “with President Obama … We should have a speedy withdrawal. … Why should we keep wasting our money — rebuild the U.S.” He flatly stated: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan.” 

In both tone and early decision-making, the similarities between President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, of course, stop there. At a boiling point, even after increasing the Pentagon budget (as Biden too is now poised to do), Trump was frank with the brass: “You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win anymore. … I wouldn’t go to war with you people.” It is something Biden would never say and when push came to shove, in the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump did do what he said he wouldn’t. 

He went (back) to war with those people. 

Trump agreed to a modest surge of troops in Afghanistan, that territory of blunder he had disparaged during his ascent. Then, he ultimately deferred to his ruling troika of generals: White House chief of staff John Kelly, secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. national security advisor H.R. McMaster. Back then, he gave an address at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia that looked (especially now) more hostage tape than it reminded of the vitriolic stemwinders against the establishment that made him president. For many of his core supporters, it was a grave disappointment. 

But Trump never veered from his private view. In the years before he left Washington, Trump instructed his hawkish secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to negotiate, with Taliban officials, an exit from Afghanistan, something the hardliner did not relish. A May 1, 2021 deadline was hatched, and Trump flashed increasingly unbound personnel choices he slated for a term two. That is, the named selections of retired colonel Douglas Macgregor to be his effective pointman on Europe (as former ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell had been), and relevant here, William Ruger to be ambassador to Afghanistan. 

Honoring the May 1 deadline Trump set is not something Biden is pledging to do. But, as of Wednesday, he has pledged to do everything else.

Speaking from the Treaty Room at the White House — rare for presidents in recent years — Biden seemed to take a shot not so much at Trump, as the Democratic president he once served. “Think about that. We delivered justice to [Osama] Bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since,” Biden said. “With the terror threat now in many places, keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders. We can not 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.”

Biden says U.S. troops will be gone by September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of Bin Laden’s monstrous masterpiece. In Foreign Policy, veteran military reporter Mark Perry makes the case this week that Biden’s history loomed large: “For decades, his dealings with officers have been marked by an insistence on showing he’s not intimidated by them.” The most famous example, of course, being Biden’s blow-up with legendary general Stanley A. McChrystal, whose liquored-up divulgences to the late Michael Hastings, especially about the future president, ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone, making Hastings’ career and ended McChrystal’s.     

But it is impossible and counterfactual to state for certain what Joe Biden would have done in Donald Trump’s shoes four years prior, when he didn’t have a predecessor who had pounded the pavement for four years attacking America’s “endless wars” from the Oval Office. Or one who had instructed his chief diplomat to work it out with the Taliban, a third rail in not only in the defense establishment but, in particular, the Republican Party. 

Simply, Trump neutered conservative critiques of leaving the country. That’s not small stuff. Putting aside true belief at the outset, he clearly too long demurred, leaving a political million dollar bill on the ground for his successor to pick up if he lost re-election, which is what happened. But it must be stated for posterity that the 45th president was a big reason the opportunity was there, at all, for the 46th.

*** 

For his part, Trump’s choice, Ruger (a TAC board member), hailed Wednesday’s news, while noting that those who favor a U.S. foreign policy in this direction should “trust, but verify” the new White House. In a call with Defense Priorities, Ruger said the decision resulted from an emerging “bipartisan consensus at the highest levels” — which included progressives like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Rep. Ro Khanna and conservatives such as Colorado Rep. Ken Buck and freshman Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer. Fending off the doubters, Ruger said Biden’s move was “hardly hasty or precipitous.” 

Many of Biden’s old sympathizers were at a loss. 

The dean of foreign policy columnists, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, proclaimed that history will cast a shadow over Biden’s decision. McChrsytal’s old comrade, retired Gen. David Petraeus, told Defense One that the move was an “unforced error.” And Biden’s old friends, the Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, champions both of the last twenty years of American foreign policy, called the disembarkment a gift to America’s enemies and “dumber than dirt,” respectively. 

It should be underlined that Biden has yet to bring this over the finish line. 

U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, potential targets for enemy fire tonight. That fact will endure until at least September. A central reason the previous administration did not exit more swiftly was, of course, the fear of Taliban barbarism, particularly toward women in civil society. A former senior Trump administration official noted the prospect of the most extreme — potential Taliban executions of women being, all covered on cable news — was not exactly salivating fare for the president’s political team heading into a re-election effort. 

Biden’s allies have similar concerns. 

“I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for,” Biden once told the late, famed diplomat Ricahrd Holbrooke, as was recently recounted by Politico. But in that same report? Equivocation. “Both [Rep. Seth] Moulton and [a] former senior military officer noted that his past blowup with Holbrooke aside, Biden also wouldn’t want to be responsible for the deterioration of Afghan women’s rights in the case of American withdrawal.” But if Biden withdraws, he may well be responsible for such an outcome, that’s called a tradeoff, and failure to confront them has kept the United States in its longest war in history. 

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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