With Afghan move, Biden seeks to focus US on new challenges

WASHINGTON – President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan 9/11 was rooted in his belief that there is no place to continue 20 years of fruitless efforts to remake this country, especially at a time when he wants the United States to focus on an economic agenda and transformational social at home and in other countries. the evolution of threats from abroad.

Although Mr. Biden would never use the term, coming out of Afghanistan is part of his own version of “America First,” which is radically different from how his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, used the expression. His years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president convinced him that the US-led effort in Afghanistan was destined to crumble on its own weight.

Time and time again under the Obama administration, Mr. Biden lost arguments for reducing the US presence to minimal counterterrorism force. But after less than three months as president, Biden came to the determination that only a complete withdrawal – unrelated to political conditions on the ground – would distract America from the conflict of the past two decades. for the benefit of the very different types he expects in the next two.

He defined the goals of his presidency as being to free the country from the grip of a virus that is turning into new variants, to seize the opportunity to strengthen economic competitiveness against China and to prove to the world that the American democracy can still face great challenges.

And in this vision, the priorities are to fight poverty and racial inequalities and to increase investments in broadband, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and 5G communications – not using the military to support the government of President Ashraf Ghani. This means thinking about infrastructure rather than force protection and defending commercial supply chains rather than military supply lines.

Mr. Biden’s approach comes with obvious risks. the annual global threat assessment released by its intelligence chiefs on Tuesday morning, as news of its decision leaked, explicitly warned that “the Afghan government will find it difficult to keep the Taliban at bay” if the US-led coalition pulls out. Administration officials said it raised the specter of something akin to the fall of Saigon in 1975, after the United States gave up another thoughtless war.

But Mr Biden’s decision clearly shows his belief that the fight against China’s rise takes precedence over the idea that with a few more years Afghanistan, and a few billion dollars more, the United States could achieve with a few thousand soldiers what it could not achieve with the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the more than $ 2 trillion already invested in two decades of war and nation building.

After Mr. Biden said at a press conference last month that “we have to prove that democracy works,” he continued, describing a foreign policy that aimed to restore America’s reputation for doing great things. “China is far surpassing us,” the president noted, “because their plan is to make this future their own.”

Indeed, no one celebrated US involvement in Afghanistan, or Iraq, more than the Chinese – conflicts that have kept Americans awake at night worrying about losses and taking control of distant provinces, while Beijing was focused on expanding its influence into parts of the world where America was once the undisputed dominant power.

Several years ago at the Central Party School of China, a recently retired Chinese military officer said his colleagues were amazed at how the United States was wasting its assets.

On Tuesday, one of Mr Biden’s top advisers suggested the president had come to the same conclusion. To face the threats and challenges of 2021 rather than those of 2001, he said, “forces us to close the book on a 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.”

But this choice carries considerable risks, which is why it took two and a half months and controversial disputes with Pentagon leaders to achieve it.

His advisers acknowledged that the president would be blamed if Afghanistan collapsed in Taliban hands, or, far more concerning, once again became a haven for terrorists eager to strike the United States.

Critics of Mr. Biden were quick to paint the move as a sign of retirement from the United States, ignoring that just six months ago, Mr. Trump falsely said he would have turned out he would bring all American troops home for Christmas.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who also tried to persuade Mr. Trump to stay, called the move “dumber than dirt and demonically dangerous.”

And while Democrats were generally supportive, some expressed concern over maintaining the ability to deal militarily with an emerging threat from Afghanistan.

“There is no easy answer,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and an influential voice on the Armed Services Committee. The key, he said, would be “a very determined counterterrorism operation”.

But as Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council under Mr. Trump, said, the difficult question was where to locate these forces – and how to return them to hostile territory in the event of a need.

“Getting them back to Afghanistan to deal with terrorist groups is becoming more and more difficult as the Taliban take over larger parts of the country,” said Ms. Curtis, now at the Center for New American Security.

“It shouldn’t be one or the other,” she added. “We should be able to maintain a certain level of forces in Afghanistan because we can deal with more than one threat at a time. ”

This was not the view of his boss, Mr. Trump, who wanted to leave Afghanistan but never made a plan.

When historians look back on this moment, they can conclude that Mr. Biden’s decision was predestined.

The place is not called the Cemetery of Empires for nothing: the British withdrew in 1842, after an expedition their textbooks call the “disaster in Afghanistan”, and the Soviets in 1989, after a decade of death and destruction. frustration. What Soviet leaders learned in a decade, four US presidents learned in two.

Mr. Biden was an early convert to heading out, though he lost the point in 2009, during President Barack Obama’s first policy review. In his memoirs, Mr. Obama recalled that his vice president had warned him at the time about an ‘unbridled’ US military that was dragging “the country deeper into a futile and extremely costly nation-building exercise. “.

Mr Biden still believes it, but he has now gone further in rejecting the Pentagon’s insistence that any withdrawal be “conditional” – in other words, reversible if it appears the Afghan government is in danger of losing control. .

In short, Mr. Biden declares that the war is over – no matter what, and even if the United States leaves with most of its goals unfulfilled, and The stability of Afghanistan deeply in danger. If there is no more terrorist attack launched from Afghan territory, no echo of September 11, 2001, Mr. Biden could well have been judged as having made the right bet.

In the end, the argument that won the day is that Kenosha’s future is more important than defending Kabul. And if Mr. Biden can truly focus the country on much bigger strategic challenges – in space and cyberspace, against waning powers like Russia and emerging powers like China – he will ultimately have pulled the country out of its control. fixation post 9/11, where the fight against terrorism has taken precedence over all other foreign policies and national imperatives.

It would be a real change in the way Americans think about the purpose of the nation’s influence and power, and the nature of national security.

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