THE LONGEST MISSION
In his March 2009 speech, Obama said U.S. Troops were in Afghanistan to “Disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda.” Here, U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division take cover as a Blackhawk helicopter takes off on May 24, 2009 in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, southwest of Kabul.
When President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he inherited former President Donald Trump’s plan for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The two men agree on little. Yet, Biden honored the agreement. In fact, Biden has supported reducing troops on the ground for years, advising President Barack Obama to limit involvement there back in 2009, even as Obama’s generals were recommending an increased American presence, as discussed in this excerpt from award-winning, former BBC journalist David Loyn’s new book, The Long War: The Inside Story of America and Afghanistan since 9/11 (St. Martin’s Press, September 21). In the wake of the U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s swift fall to the Taliban, Loyn and his work offer an insight into Biden’s policy in the region and into some of the decisions that were made while he was vice president to a new president with little foreign policy experience.
IN THE “YES, WE CAN!” OPTIMISM OF THE change of power in Washington, D.C. in January 2009, a profound rethinking of “Bush’s wars” was one of the top priorities. Afghanistan was no longer the “other war” but the “good war,” Iraq the unnecessary “war of choice.” While both wars were to be ended, the administration was not united on how that should be done.
Obama hedged between values and interests in foreign policy, idealist promotion of democracy against realist focus only on U.S. economic and security concerns. He made a speech in Cairo promising a “New Beginning,” but he was wary of deeper involvement. Counterinsurgency was fashionable, but few in the administration were committed to the number of troops that would be needed to make it work. The leading realist, Vice President Joe Biden, argued that America should not throw any more money or lives into the maw of Afghanistan other than the bare minimum in adopting counterterrorism tactics (CT), pursuing the remnants of Al-Qaeda with drones and Special Forces.
Far older than most in the administration, Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, aged just 30, when he ran on an anti-Vietnam war platform. He had been on the other side of the argument from the soldiers who had joined up then and were now the generals commanding America’s wars. In Afghanistan his stripped-down counterterrorism plan was derided by many in the Army as unworkable. “To defeat a network, you have to attack the network,” said General David McKiernan, then the commander of troops in Afghanistan.
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