There is an oft-quoted statement from a Taliban fighter: “You Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Many are resurrecting that quote amid an unfolding disaster in Afghanistan precipitated by a hasty, poorly planned and strategically myopic withdrawal of US forces by Joe Biden. It was as if the president was looking down, tapping his watch, saying, “Let’s get this done before September 11, and move on to the next issue.”
A former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, writing in The New York Times, condemned Biden for his lack of “strategic patience.” Crocker recounted the significant – if flawed and halting – progress made in Afghanistan over the last two decades – now unraveling before our eyes. “When president Barack Obama left office there were fewer than 10,000 US troops,” Crocker wrote. “And when Mr Trump departed there were fewer than 5,000. The Taliban still did not hold any major urban area. Now, they hold the entire country. What changed so swiftly and completely? We did. Mr Biden’s decision to withdraw all US forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.”
An “affordable status quo” was a good way to put it. Afghanistan still had a long nation-building effort ahead of it, and most of it was being done by Afghans, under an affordable US security umbrella. Yes, there were problems and mismanagement and corruption, but let’s not forget that it took America nearly two centuries and a civil war to fulfill some of the basic promises of its constitution – and let us also not forget the hell the Taliban created for Afghans when they ruled from 1996-2001.
Henry Kissinger once told a top aide that foreign policy issues are not problems that can be “solved.” Rather, they are issues that must be “managed.” Trump wanted to “solve” Afghanistan by negotiating with the Taliban and declaring a timeline for troop withdrawal – a bad idea. Biden jumped on this bad idea bandwagon, steering it way off course, crashing into the gutter.
While Biden is the primary author of this failure of “strategic patience,” Trump and Obama laid the roots for it. This partly goes back to Obama’s pledge to “rebalance” US policy toward the Asia-Pacific and away from the “forever wars” of the post-9/11 era – the so-called “pivot to Asia.” It’s a worldview that has percolated to the top of the U.S national security establishment.
Obama and Trump did not agree on much and their styles contrasted sharply, but they both instinctively wanted to “get out” of the Middle East conflict management arena, so they could focus more attention on the rising power in East Asia, China. Never mind the fact that the US still had tens of thousands of troops in South Korea and Germany – a conflict management exercise arising from World War II and the Korean War.
In an interview published in The Atlantic magazine, Obama famously called several of America’s top Middle East allies “free riders” on the American security umbrella, dragging the US into regional and sectarian conflicts. He said that the US should focus on the fast-growing markets of Asia and Latin America.
There was a realpolitik “America First” impulse in Obama’s worldview that often goes unmentioned because it was also that that brought to power Trump – the declared “America First” president. Obama displayed this callous, realpolitik when he failed to enforce his own “red line” when Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.
Obama declared that core American interests were not at stake. While Obama still elicits swoons and cheers from his admirers, for the vast majority of Syrians, he left them alone to face barrel bombs and devastation.
Trump, for his part, was eager to remove all US special forces from Syria, though the generals tamped down his enthusiasm, while national security advisors diverted his attention. While Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit, his relations with regional powers tended to be transactional rather than strategic and, always, there was the idea of “getting the hell out.”
Meanwhile, the national security establishment in Washington had long moved away from one popular acronym, GWOT (the Global War on Terror), toward a new one, GPC, or Great Power Competition. Strategic policy making, it should be noted, should never be beholden to acronyms nor simple timelines.
Joe Biden, it seems, also has a callous “America First” streak. As the author George Packer reports in an insightful biography of Richard Holbrooke, then vice-president Biden reacted sharply when he was asked if the US had a humanitarian obligation to the people of Afghanistan. “F*** that,” Biden reportedly told Holbrooke in 2010. “We don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger got away with it,” he is reported to have said.
This is striking for a president who has declared that human rights and democracy will return to the US foreign-policy agenda. In Afghanistan, you had a modest US troop presence that was keeping the country out of the hands of the Taliban – a notorious human-rights-abusing group. You also had a flawed, fledgling democracy with working institutions of state, and plenty of people trying to do the right thing (even amid the corruption at the top).
To borrow from Kissinger, this seemed like an issue that could be managed, rather than “solved” with a questionable troop withdrawal on a tight timeline against the advice of your generals. By doing so, Biden has assured that Afghanistan will not be the distant, back-page foreign-policy issue it had become. It will now be front and center for the next four years.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the Emerging World newsletter.