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At Last, a Presidential Case for Restraint

Joe Biden forcefully argues for ending the war in Afghanistan amid great pressure to do otherwise.

U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he gives remarks on the worsening crisis in Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House August 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

I’m not naturally inclined to like anything Joe Biden says, but I can’t help but think that was a great speech last night. More than a presidential address, it was comprehensive attempt to make a case for foreign policy restraint (Trump did this on occasion too, though his arguments were more scattershot and undermined by the “let’s take their oil” stuff).

Amid howls from across the political spectrum and genuinely disturbing images out of Kabul, Biden didn’t back down. He decried nation building and placed it in opposition to America’s national interest. He stated unequivocally that it was wrong for American troops to do a job the Afghanis themselves wouldn’t do. He contrasted counterterrorism operations in places like Somalia with the all-out occupation of Afghanistan (a somewhat tenuous distinction but still indicative that he understands how extraordinary our presence in that latter country is).

He’s now taking fire from some who say he deflected blame for what happened in Kabul onto the agreement President Trump signed with the Taliban, acting like the deal tied his hands. But I’m not sure that’s true. Decide for yourself (emphasis added):

There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.

There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict. 

I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

That sounds more like an indictment of the occupation than a narrower attempt to fault Trump’s policy.

Still, the best bit had to be this:

American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.

We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support.

We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.

There’s some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers, but if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.

Cue the screeching about how Biden supposedly blamed the Afghan people for their predicament. Yet is there anything in there that isn’t true? The Afghan army did collapse like matchsticks. A lack of will does appear to be the reason. And there is nothing to indicate that a year or 20 from now the armed forces will be any less enfeebled, or the government any less corrupt, or the Taliban any less determined.

Credit Biden for saying so out loud. After decades of officials peddling notional victory scenarios like snake oil, it was refreshing to hear the truth stated so forthrightly. I also loved this line, which came after Biden discussed the visits he’d paid to Afghanistan over the years: “I came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan.” What’s possible. Isn’t that just what’s been missing from our thinking all along? Isn’t that what’s still missing from those who maintain we can somehow take the Afghani narco-state and flip it into a functioning democracy?

Naturally the Wall Street Journal is aghast:

President Biden told the world on Monday that he doesn’t regret his decision to withdraw rapidly from Afghanistan, or even the chaotic, incompetent way the withdrawal has been executed. He is determined in retreat, defiant in surrender, and confident in the rightness of consigning the country to jihadist rule.

It’s as though Biden was supposed to have switched on his TV and promptly called the whole thing off. And here’s a bunch of stone-fisted circa-2001 rhetoric in case you dare to disagree. The presumptuousness of these people is breathtaking.

That Biden didn’t do that, that he made a case for restraint instead, is encouraging.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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