Real talk: Joe Biden hasn’t had too many finest hours in his 47 years plus years on the national scene. To be fair, he’s had his moments – like a powerful, earthy, and impassioned 1986 speech he delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposing the Reagan administration’s apologism for the "repulsive, repugnant" Afrikaner apartheid "regime" in South Africa. Sure, he later – during the 2020 campaign – repeatedly peddled a bizarre lie that he once got arrested attempting to visit Nelson Mandela in prison. Nor does Biden sport such clean record on race relations in his own country – busing, crime bill, mass incarceration, anyone? Nevertheless, it was a damn good pitch Joe made in excoriating the (recently deceased) then Secretary of State George Schultz that July day in 1986. Moreover, within a month of that exchange Congress began debating on the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act – imposing sanctions on South Africa – which eventually passed both Houses in a rare override of Reagan’s veto.
Less fanciful, but far more relevant now, was Biden’s behind-the-scenes – but apparently impassioned – opposition, as vice president, to the early Obama surge in Afghanistan. In one contentious 2010 exchange with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (recorded in the latter’s diary) – Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – Biden apparently shouted: "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." In this case, at least, Biden – who’d been staggeringly wrong on Iraq – was basically right, even if his vague pragmatism strikes some as crass or callous.
The anecdote matters, by the way, because the whole build-a-nation, avoid an Afghan terror-haven, and protect-the-women, schtick is back in a big way in Biden’s Washington. And it’s that same old Joe – if a decade on – who rejected those tired arguments before, who’s in the hot seat now. He’s "the decider," as George W. Bush liked to say – and those who care wait with bated breath, for Joe to let us know: will the troops stay or will they go?
Look, Biden’s dissent on the Afghan War always lacked consistency and sophistication, plus was never the Road to Damascus pivot – and more’s the pity – posited in last year’s Washington Post headline: "The war in Afghanistan shattered Joe Biden’s faith in American military power." Would that it had. Nevertheless, Biden’s earlier skepticism came at a time when counterinsurgency "surge" snake oil salesmen – like Generals "King" David Petraeus and Stan-the-Man McCrystal – seemed immensely credible, and closed deals with a charisma straddling sociopathy. That’s no small thing – and almost enough to make even the self-styled cynic dare to hope.
Only the Washington of 2021 is a different and – how’s that for saying something – more toxic, post-Trump town than it was a decade ago, and Biden’s now left the backroom for the bedazzled throne. He’ll be under immense pressure from the duopoly’s establishment wings to undo all things Trump, his own – more hawkish than he – interventionist national security advisers, and the usual military-industrial complex masters of the universe, to stay the Afghan course just little longer. It started before Biden was even elected, and it’s recently reached a fever pitch. Plus, early signals from the administration have been less than reassuring – like Biden’s own March 2020 piece in Foreign Affairs which only argued that America withdraw the "vast majority" of its troops from Afghanistan.
All of which recalls a darker take – about a prison not unlike that of the Washington war-policy mind – from "Red" [Morgan Freeman] in The Shawshank Redemption: "Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."
The Same Old, Well-Trod, Tired Arguments
May 1st is the key date for Biden. That’s the current deadline for full withdrawal of all U.S. troops, per the now much-maligned deal the Trump team negotiated with the Taliban. However, Biden will need to – and likely will – decide whether to keep this timeline, weeks, if not months, ahead of the May deadline, given the necessary logistical lead times required to removing 2,500 troops, and presumably some key equipment, from the landlocked country. The problem is that almost no one in the foreign policy establishment ever liked the Trump deal, and now the hawks are circling – hoping to pounce on the agreement’s official stipulations to scuttle the thing.
In exchange for a US military departure, the Taliban agreed to prevent Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. Furthermore, what the New Yorker’s Steve Coll recently called "the conditions that some had hoped [there’s that H-word again!] might prevail in the country by now – greatly reduced violence, progress in establishing a new political order" – sure haven’t panned out. Funny thing: I distinctly remember being hammered over the head with a certain cliché during my time as a planner and commander – inside the cliché-factory that is the U.S. Army – "Hope is not a method!"
In other words, why should the Taliban quit attacking the Kabul government’s security forces? They had fought the US to a standstill by 2014, and have gradually gained ground, militarily, every year since. They’d already won the war, for all strategic intents and purposes, before Trump even began negotiating. Everyone in our Emerald City chimera capital seems to forget that Trump got about the only deal available – a bad one. Well, losers holding weak hands usually do! Only now all of Washington’s armchair hawks are sore about it – seeking to rewrite history and pretend there were (or are) better paths.
There are at least two main sets of problems standing in Biden’s way, assuming he did actually want to ditch this 19+ year disaster. First, expect the Pentagon, and the civilian Washington-wing of the "defense watcher" expert analyst class to either obfuscate or exaggerate – heck maybe even fabricate, given past track records – the existence or extent of current Al Qaeda-Taliban ties. In fact, the [wishful] think tankers – civil and military alike – have been pushing such alarmism for a hot minute now already. Yet such fear-mongering masquerading as objective analysis rarely offers satisfactory evidence, place what evidence they do have in proper context, or provides any real sense of proportion – i.e., even if they’re right about the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus: what’s the actual, comparative, threat to the US Homeland of leaving Afghanistan?
Second, it seems the Taliban feels, and may in fact be, strong enough – they now control or contest half the country – to scoff at such stipulations. And they’ve no motive to quit attriting an Afghan National Security Force that’s long been on life support, and can’t recruit replacements as fast as the Taliban offs them – to say nothing of their army of AWOL "ghost soldiers," who don’t so much man the battle lines as line the pockets of the corrupt officers who continue collecting their paychecks. Problem is, the Taliban’s understandable propensity to escalate – and maybe even talk to a few Al Qaeda capos to boot – may offer Washington’s war-hawks just the justification they need to settle U.S. troops in for an even longer haul. They may even try to escalate – with some calling for 2,000 extra troops to bring the count of hopeless crusaders back to 4,500, thereby undoing Trump’s late-stage reductions. That oughta do it!
The most recent, and mainstream-amenable, energy behind the "Stay-the-course, Joe" crowd, comes from the congressionally-appointed Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel whose recent report essentially argued "that withdrawing troops based on a strict timeline, rather than how well the Taliban adheres to the agreement to reduce violence and improve security, risked the stability of the country and a potential civil war once international forces withdraw." Sound familiar? Yep – it’s the exact same line these exact same people have peddled for years. It even burnishes the same old buzzwords!
Next comes the exaggerated alarmism, encouraging you to be afraid, be-very-afraid, because: "A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors, including the Taliban." Strange though, these scare-tactics always seem – and always have been – laced with way more ominous lingo than actual empirical evidence of credible threats to the homeland, or clearly-defined vital interests that the United States actually has over in the Afghan imperial graveyard. Perhaps that’s by design.
FFor example, nowhere in Steve Coll’s New Yorker piece – which was a hardcore hedge job – did he so much as mention a vital US interest, or a realistically assessed threat to the homeland. He, like the Study Group authors – and mainline pundits everywhere – speaks instead of "Kabul’s fortunes," Afghanistan’s (admittedly in-for-it) "working women," and the foreboding fortunes of that country’s "globalized urbanites," and "democracy dreamers." Anyone else notice that there’s no calls for invasion, occupation, and a societal makeover on behalf of those same groups – including the near chattel-status of women, sometimes beheaded for "witchcraft" and "sorcery" – in the Saudi Kingdom we’ve propped up for nearly a cruelty-complicit century.
So just who’s in this here group study in the bureaucratic banality of evil? I mean, since they’re charged by Congress to submit sweeping recommendations for the new president’s profound policy decision in America’s longest-ever war – it’s probably a pretty diverse sample of US foreign policy thought, right? Wrong again! Sure enough, the Afghanistan Study Group is a full house of failed militarists – a crew Rep. Ro Khanna poignantly dubbed "the people who got us into this mess." These folks are all tainted by war industry-ties and their past policy positions. In fact, they’re so overtly hawkish and awash in defense contractor blood money, it’s frankly embarrassing – and a slap in an apathetic public’s face. Consider the highlights:
- Former Senator Kelly A. Ayotte, Co-Chair: a leading voice in the hawkish wing of the Senate Republican Conference; opposed Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and closing Guantanamo Bay; and is on the board of BAE Systems – a prominent defense corporation.
- General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. (Ret), CO-Chair: former four-star general who once commanded – and failed to win when had a crack at that hopelessness – America’s Afghan War; these days he’s on the board of Lockheed Martin.
- Oh, and you may recognize a few others: Nisha Biswal (senior advisor with the [Madeleine] Albright Stonebridge Group); James Dobbins (RAND Corporation); Michèle Flournoy (WestExec Advisers and Center for a New American Security); Stephen Hadley (one of the key architects of George W. Bush’s absurd – and failed – Iraq surge); Meghan O’Sullivan (Raytheon and WestExec Advisors); and retired General Curtis "Mike" Scaparrotti (another former Afghan War commander and now of the Cohen Consulting Group)
These are the pyromaniacs – if mostly polite pyros – who lit wildfires from West Africa to Central Asia since 9/11, and are now studiously dancing on the torched region’s blackened graves. Think these congress-members might revive and hire John Wayne Gacy to perform at their children’s next birthday parties?
Steve Coll did get one thing basically right – in his column’s closing line: "Now, as then, there are no good or easy options – only less bad ones." True, but after 20 years of less-bad-strategies that never stuck or meaningfully moved the Afghan needle – maybe, for once, it’s Band-Aid time, baby! That’s right, ditch all the arguments to stay and fail – whilst only maintaining the fiction of not-yet-losing – and head home. Bring the boys (and girls) back, and fast. Consider it the Seinfeld solution to pain-management and forever war loss-cutting: one move, right off!
Pity we didn’t do it back in 2016, 2009 – or 2003, for that matter. Nothing would have meaningfully changed – in the long-term, at least – on the ground if we had…and thousands of the troops Americans pretend-to-adore might be alive today.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen