The Biden campaign’s promise on Afghanistan: “Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure. As he has long argued, Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
It’s fair to ask whether Afghanistan qualifies as a “forever war.” The last death of a U.S. soldier from hostile fire was February 8, 2020. As I noted in January, the U.S. combat death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years is comparable to that of Niger.
In January, the Department of Defense said that only 2,500 U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan, “the lowest number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan since operations started there in 2001.” But a few days ago, the New York Times reported that, according to U.S., European, and Afghan officials, “that number is actually around 3,500.” In March 2020, approximately 12,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan, but by December 2020, the rest of the NATO forces in Afghanistan outnumbered the remaining U.S. military presence.
Any way you want to slice the numbers, Trump kept Biden’s promise to “bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan” before Biden took office. That’s probably about as low as the U.S. troop commitment can go while maintaining counterterrorism operations. And now the question is: Should the U.S. give up any ability to continue counterterrorism operations in the name of keeping that promise of “ending the forever wars,” and honoring a Trump administration agreement with the Taliban?
In his interview with George Stephanopoulos, President Biden offered murky answers on the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They might all leave by May 1, they might not. But Biden insisted that whatever goes wrong, it’s Trump’s fault, not his own.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President Trump reached a deal with the Taliban to have all American troops leave by May 1st. Are they going to leave?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’m in the process of making that decision now as to when they’ll leave. The fact is that — that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president — worked out. And so we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government. And — that decision’s gonna be — it’s in process now.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Likely to take longer?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don’t think a lot longer.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But May 1st is tough?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Could happen, but it — it is tough beca– look, one of the drawbacks, George, and it’s gonna be, like, Sanskrit to people listening here, but it is the failure to have an orderly transition from the Trump presidency to my presidency, which usually takes place from Election Day to the time you’re sworn in, has cost me time and consequences.
This is the same Joe Biden who spent most of 2020 telling us he was “ready on day one,” right?
Joe Biden is in many ways a cookie-cutter politician, in the sense that he wants to please everyone and avoid getting blamed if things go wrong. We are long past any of the easy answers on Afghanistan. Biden can pull out the remaining troops, say he has ended “the forever war,” and live with the consequences. Or he can admit that his campaign’s “end the forever war” rhetoric oversimplified a complicated foreign-policy problem and downplayed the threat to U.S. interests.