After two decades of a war that started out with what he called clear objectives and a just cause, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he would withdraw the last remaining American troops from Afghanistan. In a 15-minute speech from the White House Treaty Room, where then-President George W. Bush informed the nation in October 2001 of the first U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaida training camps, Biden declared, “I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
How he inherited the burden of pulling U.S. troops from the country, and why he determined he would not leave it to his successor, is what makes the war in Afghanistan so tragic. As vice president, Biden and his presidential predecessor and former boss Barack Obama began to debate the possibility of a substantial drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan in 2014. By then, the phrase “fragile but reversible” had already become a tired refrain of Pentagon briefings and Congressional hearings. Year after year, military officials, diplomats and humanitarian aid experts had trooped up to the podium to tell an anxious American public that any U.S. withdrawal must be “conditions-based” to avoid undoing whatever gains had supposedly been made. The implicit subtext each time was that the year ahead would not only be different, but would make the difference between a responsible and irresponsible American exit from Afghanistan.
Now, with a date fixed for a full U.S. withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Biden has wisely chosen to jettison the policy canard that Washington will ever arrive at a consensus about what stability looks like in a seemingly terminally unstable Afghanistan.