At President Joe Biden’s first press conference from the White House this afternoon, a reporter asked if the U.S. would still have troops in Afghanistan in 2022. “I can’t picture that being the case,” Biden responded. Given that both the last two presidents said they were going to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan – and neither did – this vague promise is not reassuring.
Biden said the U.S. military could not withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1 because of “tactical reasons,” but that the troops will eventually leave. “It’s not my intention to stay there for a long time,” the president continued, “the question is how and under what circumstances.” He did not explain what those circumstances might be or when he would announce a firm date. That should trouble every American. We’ve seen such claims before.
In a May 2014 Rose Garden speech, Obama told the American people how “we will bring America’s longest war to a responsible end.” He would do that, he said, by ending combat missions by 2014, cutting the troop numbers in half by 2015, and then, “by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.”
Yet in October 2015, Obama again addressed the American people and told them he was rescinding his earlier pledge and would instead keep thousands of troops in Afghan through the end of his term. Ironically, at this briefing the president said that as everyone is “well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war,” and claimed to be against “open-ended military conflicts that do not serve our core security interests.” Yet he did keep the military conflict open-ended and passed the war off for his successor to figure out.
Trump entered office wanting to end the Afghan war as well. Yet within months of taking office, instead increased the number of troops. By October of 2020, however, Trump had had enough and vowed to end the war, tweeting he would bring “our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Yet he too merely reduced the number of troops, depositing responsibility for the war into a fourth president’s lap.
As a candidate, Biden promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” Though Trump didn’t end the war himself, he did set up Biden for success by negotiating a firm end date of May 1, 2021. But Biden said today he’s not going to stick to that deadline because it would be “hard” to meet it “in tactical terms.” Pentagon leaders have known of this hard date for almost 13 months. They have had more than sufficient time to thoroughly plan for the orderly and professional withdrawal of our few Afghan troops, but now they apparently tell Biden doing so by May 1 would be “hasty.”
Yet as my colleague, Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin Friedman, said in a statement today, the May 1 deadline was not a product of “the last president’s ‘hasty’ decision to get out. It is a consequence of a failed counterinsurgency mission that already lasted far too long.” I have many times argued that the U.S. should have ended the war in Afghanistan and withdrawn its combat troops in the summer of 2002 after the Taliban had been destroyed and al-Qaeda driven from the country. We should have recognized the war could not be won in 2002 – and every year since has provided yet more painful evidence that we should have ended the war.
Yet there were always those who claimed we just needed a little “more time” to win the war. That we needed more troops or more money. And virtually every discussion of ending the war has been resisted by arguments that to do so would be “precipitous” or “premature.” Yet every request for more time, troops, or money were granted – while all arguments to end the war and leave successfully resisted.
At today’s press conference, Biden said “It is not my intention to stay there for a long time.” Yet it wasn’t Bush’s intention to stay for a long time. It wasn’t Obama’s intention to stay a long time, and it wasn’t Trump’s intention to stay a long time. Yet here we are, with the war still droning monotonously on, with no purpose, with no strategy, with no end in sight.
Bonnie Kristian warned in USA Today on Tuesday that, “It is no exaggeration to say canceling this [May 1] deadline could lead to a U.S. presence in Afghanistan essentially unchanged (or even expanded) by the end of Biden’s term.” To avoid this fate for himself and for the country, Biden should demand a rock-solid withdrawal date from his military commanders – weeks or months from now, not longer – and resolutely end this war.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.