The American war in Afghanistan is ending, and not with a bang, but with a whimper. After twenty years of expansive, transformational goals — and major US deployments in Afghanistan — President Joe Biden announced this week that all troops will be withdrawn by September 11, 2021. Though technically an extension of the Trump administration’s May 1 agreement with the Taliban, President Biden still benefited substantially from his predecessor’s agreement, which allowed him to push past long-running arguments about a “conditions-based” withdrawal. As a result, America’s longest war will end almost exactly twenty years to the day after the terrorist attack that precipitated it.
The announcement was heavy with such symbolism. President Biden announced the withdrawal in the same White House room where his predecessor, George W. Bush, had announced the initial airstrikes against the Taliban. President Biden followed the speech with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to the thousands of American servicemembers killed in the conflict.
Even the symbolism of the new withdrawal date was purposeful: Picking such a potent date almost ensures that the White House can’t simply push the withdrawal past that deadline. In short, almost every part of the announcement was an attempt by the Biden team to focus less on the future of Afghanistan, and more on the reasons that led us to invade and occupy that country in the first place. This suggests some lessons for those hoping to apply the Afghanistan model to other theatres in America’s “endless wars.”
THE GOOD WAR
Much of the press coverage leading up to the announcement made the same point. Biden faced a tough choice, they pointed out: Withdraw and risk Afghanistan slipping into chaos, endangering everything we have achieved there, or stay at the cost of American lives. Instead, the president chose to emphasize that America’s original goals had been met:
I believed that our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place: To ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective.
Picking September 11 allows the Biden administration to both tie its own hands on withdrawal, and to place the focus back where it belongs — on the reason we went to Afghanistan, the fact we met our objectives, and perhaps most importantly, those who fought and died for America’s longest war.
And he was right about that. Though it is misleading to separate the Afghanistan war into a “good” war and a “bad” war, it’s important to remember that Afghanistan wasn’t Iraq. It wasn’t a war fought under false pretenses, or for the purposes of spreading democracy. Afghanistan was a war fought — at least initially — to destroy a terrorist safe haven, avenge the lives of several thousand Americans, and make sure that other governments would think twice about hosting terror groups in the future. Indeed, though Afghanistan is often compared to Vietnam, the former was a far more justifiable — and far more just — conflict.
But part of the reason that it’s hard to separate the initial Afghanistan war from the quagmire it became is that it was an organic shift, rather than a conscious choice. Flush with victory and success after the initial campaign against the Taliban, the United States set new goals for itself: build a stable, secure, democratic Afghan nation. And even as we lost momentum with the invasion of Iraq, and as it slowly became clear that nation-building was beyond our capabilities, policymakers continued to cling to these goals, and to the sunk-cost fallacy.
In reality, this means that the dilemma the Biden administration faced — withdraw or stay forever — has been effectively the same dilemma that every president since Bush has faced. When I visited the country a few years back, I was surprised to hear more than one military officer tell me that the United States should simply have left in 2002 or 2003. But the more I thought about it, the more correct that argument seemed. Depending on where you want to draw the line, as much as seventeen or eighteen years of the Afghan war was a fight for unachievable goals through permanent military presence.
AFGHANISTAN AND THE ENDLESS WAR
Afghanistan is thus a cogent reminder of the fact that even wars fought for the best of reasons have a tendency to take on a life of their own, and to grow beyond their original mission; that shift may not always be obvious except in hindsight. The struggle to end the US presence in Afghanistan offers two lessons for those seeking more broadly to end America’s global war on terror. First, many of the arguments opposing the US withdrawal of Afghanistan are widely used in other contexts, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen. Consider Lindsey Graham’s portrayal of the US presence in Afghanistan as a low-cost “insurance policy” against future terror attacks. Though such arguments often seem reasonable in context, they are in reality little more than a recipe for permanent military presence in conflicts overseas, regardless of the US national interest.
And second, the push to end the Afghan war suggests that it may not be so easy for proponents of “ending endless war” to do the same in other contexts. The Biden team’s emphasis on Afghanistan’s “good war” in the rationale for leaving — and the notion that we actually achieved our original goals — is something that is simply not present in many other contexts, where the rationales for US military involvement are fuzzier and more focused on long-term counterterrorism. Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal is thus both a victory for antiwar activists, and a reminder for them that things will only get harder from here in the quest to end the twenty year war on terror.
But for the moment, antiwar activists should celebrate. The September 11, 2021 deadline is perhaps more likely to be adhered to than any other date the administration could have chosen. It would be extremely difficult for them to extend the withdrawal further, given the massive political and psychological significance of that date. Picking September 11 allows the Biden administration to both tie its own hands on withdrawal, and to place the focus back where it belongs — on the reason we went to Afghanistan, the fact we met our objectives, and perhaps most importantly, those who fought and died for America’s longest war.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Inkstick and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative.