On Afghanistan, Biden and Trump Agree
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On Afghanistan, Biden and Trump Agree

Both Want to End the 20-Year War that Killed 2,300 Americans

Terry H. Schwadron

Terry H. Schwadron

Normally, you wouldn’t put Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the same side of an issue – including on foreign policy.

But while there are significant differences, Biden and Trump agree that we should wash our hands of involvement in Afghanistan and Syria. However differently, they say we should push against Iran’s nuclear plans, mostly just watch North Korea and return the United States to a leadership role in the world.

Trump called his approach America First,  pursued policies of isolationism and denied U.S. overseas responsibilities. Biden calls it working with allies and setting a more humanitarian example and seems to be moving out the smaller conflicts for bigger showdowns with China and Russia.

You could argue endlessly about whether the rhetoric matches the effect.

Trump wanted to achieve his ends by might and an overhyped view of his own often bullying personality, while Biden seems to want more cool, professional diplomacy.

Trump wanted to achieve his ends by might and an overhyped view of his own often bullying personality, while Biden seems to want more cool, professional diplomacy. But on Afghanistan – and by extension other lasting conflicts – the men are ending up supporting the same actions with differing explanations.

Trump courted Russia, and for a while China. Biden is putting up harsher words although actions are still all about economic sanctions, not bullets.

So far, it’s not clear that the immediate future feels a lot safer from conflicts under either version, and it leaves us in search of a Biden Doctrine.

As The Washington Post notes,  in announcing that the United States will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11 (rather than Trump’s previously announced May 1):

“Biden sees the war against the Taliban as a drag on the need to deal with bigger threats like China, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic — and even a terrorism menace that has mutated significantly in the two decades since the attacks that launched the Afghan war, to begin with.

“He is also focused on threats from Russia and the decline of U.S. influence abroad.”

Danger signs abound: U.S. officials seem to be tightening a fist as Russia scrambles its military forces on the edges of Ukraine and challenges of violations of missile treaties. We have reacted to the increasing number of Chinese aggressive acts in the South China Sea.

The United States either did not know or distanced itself from Israeli acts to upset Iranian nuclear development with a bomb that sapped the main fuel processing plant of power, even while opening estranged diplomacy with Iran.

North Koreans are openly taunting us by launching more missiles, and there are skirmishes with U.S. interests in plenty of other places.

Even the withdrawals in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq pose the possibilities that abandoned campaigns will renew efforts to shield the next group of global terrorists. Such an incident happened in withdrawing most troops from Iraq, though The New York Times quotes security experts as arguing we are better prepared to collect security information now than ever.

Talk aside, we’re facing more dangers of war, both physical and cyber, while announcing plans to stand down.

The Longest War

The Afghan war has persisted through three presidencies, with military advisers insisting throughout that it would be more dangerous to leave than to stay. On Wednesday, Biden basically owned up to the fact that there is no military victory possible and that eventually presidents need to tell generals to stop. Biden had opposed advice from the military to surge troops in the beginning of the Obama years as one last shot to make things work there.

Instead, Biden wants important shifts in foreign policy to arenas like climate and economic security.

“The president deeply believes that in contending with the threats and challenges of 2021 — as opposed to those of 2001 — we need to be focusing our energy, our resources, our personnel, the time of our foreign policy and national security leadership on those threats and challenges that are most acute for the United States,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

That’s more than a hint about direction.

It means downgrading the ever-present concerns about the Middle East as a powder keg, for example, and turning more attention to Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is being welcomed this week and Chinese leadership was invited to Alaska for what turned into a verbal donnybrook over human rights. Now John F. Kerry as the first administration official to go to China will talk climate rather than military aggressiveness. Chinese and Russian leaders are asked to attend a climate summit.

Still, we’re guessing about what exactly a Biden worldview is other than the obvious breaks with Trump’s isolationism. Despite decades of Biden leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and being vice president, we know little more than a foreign policy built around engagement with allies.

Biden wants to define the issues for the world more around common concerns like climate, space, environment and the pandemic to protection, expansion of American security and economics.

American leadership in the Biden years has a lot to do with restoring faith in American democracy and inclusion, a focus that necessarily thrusts immigration, race and income inequities in the United States onto a world stage.

Biden vs. Trump

We know Biden thinks Trump was wrong to seek to embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin, to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to play at diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. But in the case of Afghanistan, Biden shares the same goal of ending U.S. presence or finishing up with Trump started.

Trump did the same with gut-inspired troop withdrawals in Syria, to the dismay of allied Kurds left to fend for themselves among Syrian, Turkish, Russian and remaining ISIS fighters.

The issues in Afghanistan have become muddled. We’re fighting the Taliban, a radical Muslim group that allowed foreign-born terrorists to train there, rather than fighting the terrorists themselves. We’ve tried supporting a succession of weak Afghan governments that cannot reach agreements with the Taliban. As advisers, U.S. troops have seemed more targets than independent and effective fighters.

As outlined, the drawdown of remaining troops will continue through the summer with the main difference being coordination with U.S. allies who also have troops in the region. This announced withdrawal eliminates the idea of reconsideration based on conditions on the ground, because, the White House explained, those conditions always support keeping U.S. troops there.

Of course, the loudest Senate Republican voices are criticizing Biden while they remained relatively quiet about Trump doing the same thing. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, said, “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous.

“President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11.”

It’s a weird way to mark 20 years since Sept. 11. It is hard to quantify what has been gained, and easy to note that 2,300 U.S. troops died and 20,000 were wounded toward a circular end to this conflict.

Weirder yet, we have an agreement between sworn political opposites on this single goal of simply leaving.

Featured image: Army Staff Sgt. Jason N. Bobo watches as a CH-47 Chinook prepares to land to provide transport for U.S. and Afghan soldiers after a key leader engagement in southeastern Afghanistan, Dec. 29, 2019. (Department of Defense)

April 14, 2021