Afghanistan’s Situation Didn’t Change. American Politics Did
The Biden administration says it can fight terrorism in a way that its predecessors called impossible. Can it?
The Earth did not change its shape. Southwestern Asia did not change its borders. No additional terrorists laid down their arms. But suddenly we’ve resolved one of the most important reasons for keeping U.S military forces in Afghanistan?
Distance. That was among the top justifications that U.S. defense and military leaders have given — through three presidential administrations — for putting and keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The argument was simple: Afghanistan is landlocked and located far from any major U.S. military bases. If U.S. leaders wanted the military to find, capture, and kill terrorists there, then U.S. forces needed jumping-off points in country and the kind of secure supply lines that come from heavy footprints. If they wanted to chase al Qaeda into Pakistan, as they did Osama bin Laden, they needed bases like the special operations lily pad at Jalalabad and the gigantic logistics hub at Bagram Air Base.
Afghanistan is not Iraq or Syria, within easy reach of Middle East bases that house tens of thousands of U.S. troops, not to mention bodies of water large enough for carrier strike groups. It is too remote for routine airstrikes on al Qaeda or in-and-out special ops missions against ISIS.
On Tuesday, a senior administration official told reporters that what had changed is the war, the threat, and the Taliban. The official argued that the United States invaded Afghanistan “to deliver justice” for the 9/11 attacks and prevent new ones on the U.S. homeland. “We believe we achieved that objective some years ago,” the official said.
The objective has not changed: “We have to continue relentlessly to work to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base from which terrorists can attack the United States,” the official said. But the execution has: “So, in coordination with our Afghanistan partners, and with other allies, we will reposition our counterterrorism capabilities, retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of the terrorist threat on the homeland from Afghanistan, and to hold the Taliban to its commitment to ensure al Qaeda does not once again threatened the United States, or our interests, or our allies.”
Mission accomplished. The “forever war” can be declared over, even if the fighting continues.
Joe Votel, who was among the first paratroopers into Afghanistan in 2001 and later oversaw U.S. forces in Afghanistan when he led U.S. Central Command, reacted unfavorably to the Biden administration’s decision.
“Afghanistan is a bigger challenge because of its geographic location — a difficult operating environment that is often hard to reach,” Votel said. “Effective CT requires good intelligence, good partners, good capabilities and access. While probably not impossible — all of these will be much more challenged and difficult from over the horizon. It will mean that if we decide to respond to a significant terrorist threat — it will likely require a major military operation to get forces where we need them to be to act. This has implications for operational security, resources and timing. We have done some of this before — but it is a lot easier when you have partners and access. If we choose to take this approach — we will need to see what arrangements need to be in place to mitigate risk.”
Those details are still undecided, the senior administration official said, including where U.S. troops will be repositioned. In addition, the official said the Afghanistan pullout would free the forces to address terrorism elsewhere in the world. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is at NATO headquarters in Brussels, this week, and Pentagon officials are expected to announce more in days to come, the official said.
The bottom line is that Biden’s team has assessed that the threat is now “at a level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint.” We’ll find out if that’s true — or whether it sets up a repeat of the 2011 U.S. pullout from Iraq, which allowed ISIS to take control of much of that country and Syria. The official said that 2011 taught that the United States needs to keep sufficient intelligence and military capabilities positioned in the region (which arguably Obama did), and needs to keep focused the “attention of our national security apparatus” (which arguably Obama did not).
In other words, some of the same Democrats in charge of the 2011 pullout want Americans to believe they’re right, this time.
They have to say this. They ran on the popular promise to work to end “forever wars” while maintaining a foot on the neck of terrorists worldwide — the same promises made by Donald Trump. They say they are adapting. “This is not 2001, it is 2021,” the official said, in slight variations, repeatedly on a 20-minute call. They’re betting that withdrawal from Afghanistan honors that commitment and, more importantly, is wise policy. But the reality is that it makes hunting terrorists more costly, less effective, and riskier for the operators still fighting this war, and the longer-term goal of keeping pressure on Islamist violent extremism.
Biden’s senior official on Tuesday said that a “conditions-based approach” — the kind that Republican and Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates begged Trump to follow just five months ago — is now just "a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever."
With zero irony, earlier Tuesday Austin announced at NATO that the United States was reversing Trump’s decision to pull troops from Germany and adding 500 more, to boot. The fact that the Biden administration is putting more troops into Germany while taking them out of Afghanistan is a tell that this decision may be less about what is required to fight and more about the image of the fight. At least Donald Trump was consistent in his stated desire to pull U.S. troops from overpriced, outdated, and unnecessary — in his view — stations like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but also from Germany, Korea, and Japan.
The truth is, America’s and its allies’ security interests in those locations have evolved since the wars that put them there. But for some reason, few are calling for the total removal of U.S. forces from any stations other than Afghanistan and Iraq, where active threats and plots continue.
Those who fought the “forever war” campaign will claim they won, today. It’s unclear if those fighting the neverending counterterrorism campaign will get to say the same. Time will tell if Biden’s plan is good policy or just bad politics.