With Afghan Retreat, Biden Bucks Foreign Policy Elite

The president, following one of his core beliefs, has put himself at odds with much of the establishment, on the right and left, in Washington and across Europe.


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LONDON — When President Biden served as Barack Obama’s vice president, he was often a lonely dissenter in White House debates about military intervention, never more so than on Afghanistan, where he strongly opposed the Pentagon’s 2009 troop surge and was overruled by Mr. Obama and his generals.

Now, Mr. Biden is the commander in chief, and in pressing to conclude the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, even at the price of a frantic, bloodstained evacuation, he has put himself at odds with much of the foreign policy establishment, on the right and left, in Washington and across Europe.

Critics have piled on Mr. Biden, not just for the messiness of the departure but also for his repudiation of the principles that drove the mission in Afghanistan. While the president sees the United States belatedly ending “an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” as he put it on Tuesday in a defiant defense of his decision, critics see a dangerous American retrenchment that could leave the world in deeper disarray.

“This was a political decision, pure and simple,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Biden, he said, had “ignored the advice of his own top generals and his own intelligence community.”

Even Mr. Biden’s fellow Democrats have delivered harsh assessments, whether about the failure to foresee the swift collapse of the Afghan Army — which led Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, to call for congressional hearings — or about the evacuation, which Representative Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts Democrat, called “a disaster of epic proportions,” leaving some Americans and Afghan allies behind.

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, wrote that Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw was a cynical political calculation, driven by an “imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars,’ as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago.”


Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, visiting soldiers in Afghanistan in 2006, called Mr. Biden’s withdrawal policy “imbecilic.”Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

But it is precisely the longstanding, deep-rooted nature of the beliefs that Mr. Biden is challenging, analysts said, that has made the backlash against him so ferocious.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the doctrine of an aggressive, expeditionary foreign policy — in which all options, including military force, are invariably on the table — has become a bipartisan article of faith in Washington. The news media, which covered those wars, played a significant role in amplifying these ideas.

NATO allies, which fought alongside the United States in Afghanistan, went along, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Mr. Blair, a Labour Party leader, backed a Republican president, George W. Bush, in invading Iraq.

Mr. Obama, who famously once said he was not opposed to all wars, just “dumb wars,” stopped short of pulling troops out of Afghanistan long after he concluded that the mission — to transform the country into a stable democracy — was a futile effort. Even President Trump, who made a career of thumbing his nose at the foreign policy establishment, deferred to his generals when they warned him not to withdraw all American forces.

“You have a president who is willing to stand up to the Washington foreign policy establishment in a way that Trump or Obama or George W. Bush were not,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former Obama administration official who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “To me, that does require introspection on the part of the foreign policy establishment.”

While Mr. Biden may have antagonized foreign policy elites, his determination to extricate the United States from costly entanglements overseas plays better with average Americans. While the harrowing images of the evacuation have damaged his approval ratings, polls suggest that many, if not most, share his conviction that the country does not have a compelling reason to stay in Afghanistan.

Mr. Biden is an unlikely insurgent. A longtime senator who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, he embraced the post-World War II vision of a globally active United States. He prized his Rolodex of world leaders and relishes mingling at elite gatherings, like the Munich Security Conference. He also voted for the Iraq War.

Yet in his years as vice president, Mr. Biden’s disenchantment with military adventures emerged as one of his core beliefs. In addition to opposing the Afghanistan surge, he resisted the NATO intervention in Libya and advised Mr. Obama to hold off on the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden (he later changed his story to suggest he was privately supportive).

“Biden was really the lone dissenting voice on Afghanistan, not just at the table but in the foreign-policy establishment, of which he was clearly a member,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “He wasn’t just some knee-jerk progressive.”

For all their differences, Mr. Nasr said there was a thread of skepticism about military intervention that connected Mr. Obama’s reluctance to deploy troops, Mr. Trump’s isolationist slogan, “America First,” and Mr. Biden’s blunt declaration that helping the Afghan people was not a vital national security interest of the United States.

The president, Mr. Nasr said, has also shown a willingness to disregard the views of European allies, a factor that helps account for the frustration in London, Berlin and other capitals, where Mr. Biden’s election had been celebrated after Mr. Trump’s browbeating. The NATO campaign in Afghanistan was a credit to the solidarity of the alliance, which made Mr. Biden’s lack of consultation all the more stinging.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict, Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

“There is serious loss of trust, and that will require a significant reassurance effort by Washington,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who chairs the Munich Security Conference.

He likened the messy evacuation from Kabul to Mr. Obama’s drawing of a “red line” in Syria if President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons — a threat that Mr. Obama failed to carry out. It does not pose an existential threat to the alliance, Mr. Ischinger said, but it raises doubts about America’s credibility.


Thousands of Afghans waited outside Kabul’s airport last month as they tried to flee the country. Many were left behind.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker in Britain who has been sharply critical of Mr. Biden, said the American retreat from Afghanistan was a propaganda victory for the Chinese, who brandished it against an insecure Taiwan, suggesting the United States could not be trusted to uphold its security commitments. It could also embolden extremist forces in Africa and other “contested spaces,” he said.

“If we don’t make clear we have the strategic patience to endure,” Mr. Tugendhat said, “we could see others fail.”

At home, foreign policy experts criticized Mr. Biden for presenting a false choice when he said the United States could redirect the resources spent in Afghanistan to the geopolitical competition with China and Russia. The challenge posed by those rivals, they said, is not going to be overcome by pulling 2,500 troops out of Kabul.

While America’s serial failures in Iraq and Afghanistan raise legitimate questions about the foreign policy establishment — some have taken to calling this loose confederation of think tank experts, former officials and commentators “the Blob” — experts warned there was a danger of overcorrecting.

“The foreign policy establishment did get it wrong in Iraq, where the U.S. overreached,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “We got it wrong in Libya, we got it wrong in Vietnam. But over the last 75 years, the foreign policy establishment has gotten most things right.”

“My biggest concern is that the United States may now be entering an era of under-reach,” said Mr. Haass, who served in the George W. Bush administration. “History suggests there’s just as much risk in under-reaching as overreaching.”

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington.

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