The Original Sin of the War in Afghanistan

How Biden viewed the start of America’s post-9/11 wars may inform his future decisions on the use of force.

The original sin of the war in Iraq was going to war in Iraq. And the original sin of the war in Afghanistan was going to war in Iraq.

In September 2001, when Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I was the policy adviser for the stretch of Asia that included Afghanistan. By 9 a.m. on 9/11, I felt certain that al-Qaeda (which was based in Afghanistan) was behind the attacks—but that we’d end up invading Iraq anyway.

I was a year and a half off. And that interim period was the only time the mission in Afghanistan ever stood a real chance. This week, President Biden announced that all United States forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. To understand his decision to get out, one has to understand the decision to get in—and how that choice was quickly undermined by the invasion of another country.

In 2001, even the most ardent war hawks didn’t want to invade Afghanistan: They wanted to invade Iraq. Neoconservatives, such as the Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, had a grand vision of remaking the country in America’s image. Paleoconservatives, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to oust Saddam Hussein, install a pliable puppet, and thereby deter any other would-be adversaries. Both camps saw Afghanistan as an unwelcome distraction from the main event, but they applied the same rationales there.

Biden belonged to neither camp. He rejected both the unrealistic ambitions of the neocons and the unambitious realism of the paleos. His decision to support going into Afghanistan and the development of his thinking as the war dragged on provide important hints of how he’ll handle questions of military force in the future.

The first choice U.S. policy makers had to make in 2001 was how to respond to an attack on American soil. Doing nothing wasn’t seen as an option. Many in Congress advocated for an air campaign alone, but serious strategists knew this would be futile: Al-Qaeda’s leadership was already in hiding, and the Taliban didn’t possess any infrastructure worth destroying.

On October 22 that year, Biden gave a speech insisting that U.S. goals—rooting out al-Qaeda and helping establish a friendly successor government to the Taliban—would require U.S. ground troops far beyond the small number of Special Forces already in place. He expressed concern about a campaign fought from 30,000 feet, which he felt would kill many civilians without achieving its aims; such action would make the U.S. look like a “high-tech bully,” he said, and potentially alienate Muslims around the globe. Republican congresspeople criticized Biden, but his prediction proved accurate. The tonnage of munitions dropped on Afghanistan has never been accurately tallied, but 7,423 bombs rained down in 2019 alone, and the Taliban are no closer to surrender.

Biden never bought into the notion of full-on nation building, though. As he said on the Senate floor, right after his first trip to Afghanistan, “We’re not talking about turning Kandahar into Paris.” He did believe that if the U.S. was going to invade a country, it had the moral and political obligation to do right by its inhabitants. He was the first American political leader to propose a billion-dollar pledge of reconstruction aid.

billion dollars? Today, after the U.S. has spent nearly 1,000 times as much in Afghanistan, it sounds like small change. But when Biden proposed it on October 3, 2001, it was more than triple what the Bush administration had offered (or, for many months, would). He got enormous pushback. I know—as the guy who pitched the figure to him, I had to arm my boss with arguments for why a major commitment of money, and potentially of American lives, made sense:

  • We have no choice but to invade. The alternative, effectively, is to let al-Qaeda survive, and plot even more destructive attacks on America
  • If we invade a nation, we have a moral obligation to make sure that we’re inflicting pain on our adversaries rather than on innocent civilians. The people of Afghanistan have suffered far too much: If we’re going to be there, we should be making their lives better.
  • As matter of geopolitics, we can’t let the U.S. be seen as a bogeyman—not just in Afghanistan, but throughout the Muslim world. We can’t “win” a war on the battlefield, only to lose the far bigger battle for influence on the global stage.

Biden got to refine these ideas with real ground truth earlier than any other elected official. On January 10, 2002, just a few weeks after the Taliban fled Kabul, he arrived for a four-day fact-finding visit. (Senator John McCain had been permitted a visit just prior, but only for a few hours, and it was confined largely to Bagram Air Base). We bunked with the Marines in the bombed-out U.S. embassy and spent our days driving around a city devastated by a two-decade civil war. On a wall of the embassy, in dust-coated frames with glass cracked, hung official portraits of Ronald Reagan and George Shultz—the president and the secretary of state when the building was last in use.

The approach advocated by Biden was forward-leaning but not unrealistically ambitious: Enough troops to crush al-Qaeda and prevent the Taliban from moving back into power before a successor could be established; enough development aid to help a ravaged people get back on their feet after far too much suffering; and all of this as part of a genuinely multinational effort. Could such an approach have worked?

Yes—and it did. For about two years after the ousting of the Taliban, that’s the path the nation was on. In August 2002, I traveled to the corners of the country, without my boss. I went to Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kabul, hosted by NGOs and eschewing U.S. military protection. I made many visits in subsequent years, but I was never able to travel that freely again. The same was true for Afghans and foreigners alike: It certainly wasn’t a golden age—but it seemed to be laying the foundations for one.

What changed after 2002? In a word, Iraq. The Bush administration’s focus started shifting within weeks of the Taliban’s ouster, and plans for the Iraq invasion soon became all-consuming. Too light a troop presence in Afghanistan meant that security was never truly established; too little money actually delivered meant that the fledgling government was never able to prove its credibility to its own people; too little focus from U.S. policy makers meant that a highly centralized governing structure, imposed on a never-before-centralized nation, could not be prevented from degenerating into nepotism, ineffectiveness, and rampant corruption. Failure to provide enough troops, money, and focus on the front end resulted in exponentially more troops, money, and focus down the line.

By the time U.S. troops crossed into Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan was already an afterthought for the administration. The Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and was soon back on the offensive. Osama bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda’s leadership, after escaping the U.S. dragnet at Tora Bora, was comfortably ensconced nearby. Without effective support from the U.S. during this key period (the first few years were when the commitment was make-or-break), the fragile experiment in Afghanistan had little chance to succeed.

So many things went wrong in the subsequent years, and there was plenty of blame to go around. I saw Biden’s frustration grow: frustration with the Bush administration, with Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai, with all of the supposedly smart experts (and clearly not-too-smart staffers) who couldn’t figure out how to make the project work.

Biden reached the end of his rope on the last trip I took with him while he was chairman, in January 2009. After a trip to Kunar Province, where he saw the same stalemate he’d seen at similar bases the year before, and a dinner with Karzai that replicated a more-than-testy exchange he’d had earlier in the visit, he concluded that there was no point in continuing to repeat the same mistakes for years to come. He was ahead of the curve: A dozen years further on, much of official Washington still isn’t ready to leave Afghanistan.

What happens next? The U.S. has a special moral debt to the thousands of Afghans who have risked their lives in service to American military and civilian personnel, and they (like their counterparts in Iraq) should be offered the chance to emigrate if they so choose. But the much larger question is what happens to Afghanistan itself. That will be up to the Afghan people, as it always had to be. The Afghans will have to forge their future under far more difficult circumstances now than they would have if their fledgling civil society had been given, say, a decade to really take root. That breathing space could have been provided by U.S. resources that were instead pulled away for the war in Iraq.

There is a real chance that Afghanistan will return to the bloody anarchy of the 1990s. But there’s also a real chance that it won’t. As Vice President Amrullah Saleh recently noted, a generation of Afghans have grown up without the Taliban as overlords, and they won’t surrender their freedoms easily: “The fate of my country,” he said, “does not lie with the last U.S. military helicopter.” The withdrawal of American troops shouldn’t mean the withdrawal of U.S. support for a regime that, with all its (many) flaws, is the most effective government Afghanistan has had for about half a century (admittedly, a rather low bar), and the most representative it has had in its history.

Today, the portraits hanging in the embassy are those of President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken—who became Biden’s staff director on the Foreign Relations Committee about a year after the 2002 visit, and has helped shape his thinking on Afghanistan ever since. If they provide enough funds, oversight, and diplomatic pressure on all of Afghanistan’s frequently meddling neighbors, they could help the government of President Ashraf Ghani overcome its challenges more successfully than doubters might fear. With some focus and effort, when Biden leaves office, his portrait could still hang in the embassy in Kabul.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.