Biden Just Made a Historic Break With the Logic of Forever WarRoundup
tags: foreign policy, war on terror, Afghanistan, militarism
Stephen Wertheim is the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Twitter: @stephenwertheim
For two decades, the United States waged a war in Afghanistan that it could not win but would not quit. “I do not support the idea of endless war,” U.S. President Barack Obama declared in 2015—as he commanded U.S. forces to continue fighting one.
The United States’ post-9/11 wars have been long, but it was not mainly their longevity that gave rise to the objection, on both the left and the right, that they had become endless. The problem lay in the nature of the objectives U.S. leaders chose to pursue. Extravagant goals, unnecessary to secure the United States, could not be fulfilled. The United States continued fighting anyway. The so-called “war on terror” was endless by definition, “terror” being a sensation and a tactic that will always be part of human experience. For Americans, war came to appear normal, inescapable, eternal, even if its burdens fell on few of their own. Somehow the most powerful country on earth seemed incapable of being at peace.
In Afghanistan, successive presidents sought to build a new state and sustain it against insurgents. This was a mission that no foreign military could achieve, unmistakably so after a surge to 98,000 U.S. troops and thousands of troops from other NATO countries failed to suffice. From then on, the United States was fighting only to delay defeat. It had two coherent options: Keep on forever or stop at once.
President Donald Trump escalated in Afghanistan before cutting a deal to put the United States’ war on a path to termination. But it is his successor Joe Biden, the creature of Washington, who has broken with the logic of endless war, at least in this one exemplary case. President Biden has not just decided to withdraw all U.S. troops, scrapping his campaign plan to leave residual forces behind. He has also delivered a methodical debunking of the forever-war mindset that has prevailed for decades. After the United States ends one endless war, what might come next?
When Biden addressed the nation on Wednesday, he confined himself to Afghanistan. He nonetheless delivered no less than a thorough indictment of bipartisan rationales for endless war.
Biden was not content to act as a reluctant steward of the withdrawal agreement handed to him by his predecessor. Nor did he merely rank other priorities above the stakes in Afghanistan. Biden went further, arguing that Washington’s cause for war had long been wrong. The United States originally acted, Biden said, for a just and achievable purpose: to “root out al Qaeda” and prevent further attacks on the U.S. homeland. Once the United States fulfilled those objectives, it had no business remaining. “We delivered justice to [Osama] bin Laden a decade ago,” he said, “and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since.”
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