Biden’s Predetermined Withdrawal Leaves Both Afghanistan and Western Coalitions in Tatters
Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware
If September 2021 feels like September 1938 it is because the United States, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, had a choice between continued war or dishonor in Afghanistan. President Biden, like Neville Chamberlain 83 years earlier, chose dishonor and like Great Britain in 1939 will likely have war.
Of course, war in the first quarter of the 21st century looks nothing like it did near the mid-point of the 20thcentury. The mighty armies, navies, and air forces of established states nowadays rarely clash on the battlefield in the epic contests of arms, men, and materiel of the past. Instead, they are bled to death by a thousand cuts inflicted by shadowy amalgamations of terrorists and insurgents in protracted combat where guile and resolve counts more than firepower and kinetics.
This is not the American way of war. And, so, after twenty years of effort and exertion, the U.S. departed Afghanistan as it did from Vietnam nearly fifty years earlier. Just as the U.S. swore in 1975 never to become mired in another counterinsurgency, similar pledges echo through the West Wing, the E-Ring, and Congress today regarding both counterinsurgency as well as counterterrorism. Much as the U.S. could not escape these unconventional modes of warfare that predominated throughout the latter decades of the 20th century, we will not escape their predominance in the present one. And, even more challenging, the U.S. will increasingly discover that its rival states will themselves accelerate their continued utilization of the tactics of terrorism, insurgency, and subversion against the U.S. as a proven game-winning strategy—in Afghanistan and beyond.
The Past as Prologue—And Its Diasatrous Consequences
In a wide-ranging article in the March/April 2020 issue of leading international relations magazine Foreign Affairs, then-candidate Joe Biden declared, “It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure.” Although his article praised smaller-scale counterterrorism missions, called-for in Afghanistan by many national security experts, it took less than eight months for Biden to withdraw the American presence entirely. Just as President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney were determined to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein from the time they took office, Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan was also pre-ordained. A decade earlier, Biden had opposed the Obama surge and argued for “counterterrorism plus,” a smaller, elite presence, based on strong intelligence and working closely behind Afghan allies—that he now found too extensive. Arguments that the Trump administration dealt Biden a bad hand may ring true, but they fail to tell the full story: withdrawal is what Biden always intended. But in leaving Afghanistan the way he did, Biden made a grave political blunder: ignoring the dire security assessments of his top military commanders and intelligence chiefs in favor of an already determined political imperative.
The near-term result is a cacophony of jihadist militants jockeying to fill the vacuum left by the U.S.; some in power, others seeking their own strategic gains from the Taliban’s military victory. The Taliban and the Haqqani Network along with their longstanding al-Qaeda allies are most immediately positioned to gain: the former will govern in its image, while likely restoring the latter’s pre-9/11 safe haven. Each will almost certainly to be challenged by upstart groups like the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which portrays itself as more violent and more ideologically pure than the Taliban, and therefore better placed to advance the jihadist endgame. And in the coming months and years, we may learn of new splinters emerging to advance the jihadist worldview both locally and, as the rapid rise of the Islamic State threat showed, potentially globally. “Competition among these jihadist groups is a critical feature of politics in the region,” Asfandyar Mir writes in the New York Times. “It means more attacks, more instability and, crucially, an even more complicated challenge for the United States and U.S. allies, if they hope to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for armed groups.”
Despite its assurances of new-found moderation, the Taliban revealed its true ideological loyalties with its appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani—an al-Qaeda intimate and a U.S.-designated terrorist—as its minister of interior. Described by leading national security scholar Seth Jones as “a wily and dangerous enemy with American blood on his hands,” Haqqani’s appointment is indicative of the Taliban’s intentions to place militant jihadist ideology at the forefront of its governance platform. Further evidence is provided by the sweeping prison releases that attended the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan and thereby bolster the array of terrorist groups blossoming there. In this respect, the Taliban’s opponents benefitted as well. Abdul Rehman, the ISIS-K suicide bomber who killed 13 American service personnel and nearly 200 Afghan civilians at Kabul’s airport on 26 August 2021, for instance, had been freed from the U.S. military prison at Bagram Airport eleven days earlier.
Even the prospect of a Taliban-ISIS-K modus vivendi should not be completely discounted. The Taliban’s lightning success, reminiscent in some ways of the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg advance across Iraq in 2013 in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, may encourage Islamic State elements to tactically moderate. Where ISIS’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq failed, the Taliban’s long-game guerrilla strategy in Afghanistan has provided a new victory against the West. In this respect, too, the ISIS-K bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in August provided the Taliban with a dual strategic boon—it both forced the U.S. to hurry its exit, and still allowed the Taliban to paint themselves as the relative moderates compared with the excesses of the Islamic State. The perceived palatability of hitherto extremist terrorist movements like both al-Qaeda and the Taliban is the subject of an especially incisive analyst by terrorism scholar Lorenzo Vidino in Foreign Policy.
In the near-term, then, the U.S. has suffered a devastating reversal in its counterterrorism mission. According to former acting CIA director Michael Morrell, “The reconstruction of al-Qaeda’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it.” Collecting that intelligence, meanwhile, will become much more challenging without human capacity on the ground.
But, perhaps equally concerningly, the withdrawal has also inflicted strategic wounds, most conspicuously to the U.S.’s relationship with its allies. One of the undisputed, towering accomplishments of the war on terror were the close bonds forged between the U.S. and its closest friends throughout the world. The seamless integration of counterterrorism intelligence by the Five Eyes community (the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and similarly close coordination with the European Union along with countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South and South East Asia—with America indisputably in the lead—has been damaged. It is likely neither permanent nor severe. But the U.S.’s unilateral decision to withdraw has undeniably infuriated many of these countries, who had accepted that, while the war in Afghanistan was still far from any kind of decisive conclusion, there were long-term advantages in the relative stability achieved there over the past two decades. Nations who had willingly followed the U.S. into this war feel aggrieved and ignored—and, even worse, that Trump’s “America First” approach has been perpetuated rather than reversed despite Biden’s repeated promises.
The long-term damage done to global counterterrorism cooperation will perhaps also set back global security—not least because U.S. collaboration with our allies transcends this issue and includes great power competition and such critical dimensions as cyber and nuclear defense. One British Conservative Party Member of Parliament provided a particularly stark warning about the future of the sacred U.S.-U.K. relationship: “The lesson for the U.K. is that interdependence must not become overreliance. We are better partners to others if we have options and can help shape decisions.” Those projecting that U.S. diplomacy will ultimately win the day and resurrect those international bonds should take warning from the administration’s bizarre decision to blindside France over the signing of the new AUKUS nuclear deal with Australia and the United Kingdom.
For all the attention focused on Afghanistan, there are few indications where the Biden administration will focus next in the global counterterrorism fight. In his 31 August speech addressing the withdrawal, President Biden declared that “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, and other countries, we just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.” Indeed, when he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House in July, Biden told him that U.S. troops would depart that country by the end of the year. This inevitably raises the prospect of whether the Afghan model will now be applied in addition to Iraq to other counterterrorism hotspots as well. Will the U.S. now seek withdrawal from Syria, despite the enduring presence of restless Islamic State cells, and our promises to our Kurdish allies? And what of the French mission in Sahel, one of the world’s growing hotspots of Salafi-jihadist terrorism? Will Paris see long-term counterterrorism wars as a national interest, given the U.S.’s willingness to turn away?
And yet, the most volatile possible side effect of U.S. withdrawal concerns relations between Pakistan and India, two nuclear states. Pakistan has long deployed proxy jihadist forces to commit major attacks within its southeastern neighbor’s borders. Given that there are now more terrorist entities than ever before in the AfPak region, and that terrorists typically thrive in chaos, we should not be surprised should groups like al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) seek to further undermine the security of that entire region. And unlike in the past, the U.S. has now lost a large degree of its credibility as a moderator, given its very public desire to turn away from the region.
President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article was titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” If Biden’s idea of American leadership is stranding our citizens and allies in a far-off land, free to be butchered by a decades-old enemy hungry for revenge, in a region beset by a widening array of genuine national security emergencies, a massive reassessment of America’s reliability will likely be the result. The famed British Foreign Office mandarin and opponent of his country’s pre-war appeasement policy towards Germany, Sir Robert Vansittart, could have been referring to 2019 when he observed of the 1930s that: “Left or Right, everybody was for the quiet life.” President Biden may offer lofty assurances, such as he did at the United Nations General Assembly on 21 September 2021, that “as we close this era of endless war we are opening an era of endless diplomacy.” But more likely the observation supposedly made by Leon Trotsky will prove correct in the context of a forthcoming re-emergence of a renewed terrorism threat. “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
 On Neville Chamberlin’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich, Churchill said, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” Available at “Winston Churchill Quotes.”Military History Matters. 20 November 2010, https://www.military-history.org/feature/winston-churchill-quotes.htm.
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 Asfandyar Mir, “Biden Didn’t See the ISIS-K Threat in Afghanistan Until Too Late.” New York Times. 31 August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/biden-isis-k.html.
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 Liz Sly, “Afghanistan’s collapse leaves allies questioning U.S. resolve on other fronts.” Washington Post. 15 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghanistan-chaos-blame-us/2021/08/14/0d4e5ab2-fd3e-11eb-911c-524bc8b68f17_story.html.
 Mark Landler, “Biden Rattles U.K. With His Afghanistan Policy.” New York Times. 18 August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/18/world/europe/britain-afghanistan-johnson-biden.ht ml.
 “President Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan — 8/31/2021.” YouTube. 31 August 2021, https://youtu.be/abVP2BZtHd0.
 Michael Collins and Maureen Groppe, “US to end combat mission in Iraq by end of year, Biden announces in meeting with Iraqi prime minister.” USA Today. 27 July 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2021/07/26/biden-meet-iraqi-prime-minister-amid-troop-redeployment-talks/8075835002/.
 Cited in William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone, 1932–1940 – Volume 2. New York: Bantam Books,1989, p. 83.
. Anne Gearan, “At U.N., Biden calls for unity in addressing pandemic and climate change.” Washington Post. 21 September 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-at-un-calls-for-unity-in-addressing-the-pandemic-and-climate-change/2021/09/21/6c8c2368-1ac3-11ec-bcb8-0cb135811007_story.html.