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Robert Gates served as Secretary of Defense for presidents of both parties. He reports that as a vice president and a senator, Joe Biden was wrong on just about every single major foreign policy issue in the last four decades.
Last week Joe Biden, now president, opined that the May 1 deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan would be “hard to meet.” Since Donald Trump had largely overseen military force rebuilding after the indifferent defense oversight of Barack Obama, such president-speak actually means “I’m not going to do it.”
This prompted heavy sighs from those of us who endured the long, bloody, divisive years of the Vietnam War under – oh, look! — another Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, who could not face withdrawing from that hopeless conflict.
Trump was the first president in a long while not to launch any new foreign military adventures after he promised in 2016 to bring all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Trump did whittle away at existing unpopular commitments in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. His administration negotiated the paper-thin Taliban agreement to cover American forces getting out of the nation’s longest war.
To date, 2,542 Americans have died and about 21,000 wounded in the nearly 20-year Afghan conflict. Another 1,144 allied troops also perished in what has become yet another perhaps well-meaning but hopeless bid to bring peace and stability to a harsh, forsaken area almost the size of Texas. Alexander the Great, the Sikh armies, the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans have been unable to conquer and coalesce the warring tribal kingdoms that are now quietly arming for another civil war as soon as the Westerners depart.
A responsive democracy is a national domestic strength, but its susceptibility to national political mood swings cripples long-term foreign commitments to counter even longer-term insurgencies.
Americans since World War II have exerted great generosity and care toward troubled peoples and areas. But aside from Korea, which was technically a United Nations operation and has been peaceful for decades, this country simply has not displayed the kind of political patience or national will to endure the decades of bloody sacrifices that match the willingness of adversaries to sacrifice thousands of their own until the U.S. packs up and leaves. See South Vietnam. See also now Afghanistan.
This is grim news for any locals who have for two decades worked and cooperated with allied forces. In Vietnam, thousands of such cooperators were imprisoned in communist “reeducation camps” when the U.S. abandoned them. Consequences for cooperative Afghan locals will likely be worse, not to mention vulnerable girls who’ve been able to attend school for the first time
Active Middle Eastern fighting has largely disappeared from U.S. media reports, easing public agitation to exit. So, Biden announcing he was just going to skip the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline hardly caused a ripple in media more obsessed with an invisible virus. The fact that Biden’s new decision erases another Trump action then would make it a plus, even if that leaves American service personnel in harm’s way for an undetermined period more.
True, for its part the Taliban has not kept its commitments either. To weaken the central government in Kabul, its scruffy, ruthless adherents have been running around most provinces blowing up and shooting down pretty much anyone and anything they choose despite the many hard-won, now faded allied victories in those same areas.
With only about 2,500 of the 110,000 American troops left and Afghan security forces seeming to take forever to train up, there’s not much left to oppose the murderous fundamentalists who were overthrown nearly 20 years ago when George W. Bush sent troops to oust Osama bin Laden’s hostile hosts after 9/11.
True to NATO’s Article 5 that an attack on one member (9/11) is an attack on all, Canadian and European governments joined, the only time that mutual defense clause has been used since the alliance founding 72 years ago next week.
Afghanistan is a repeat example of American leaders falling into mission creep as in Vietnam. It’s a priceless lesson for any future administration tempted to protect an initially limited commitment with an expanded and probably impossible commitment to protect the initial commitment, which actually just expands the mistake.
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican who saw action in both world wars, rejected French pleas for American military involvement against Communist guerrillas in colonial Indochina. But eight years later President John Kennedy, a Democrat, dispatched the first 400 of thousands of Green Beret advisors to assist South Vietnamese troops. At first, they were not even allowed to fire back when attacked. By 1965, however, another Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, sent in the first 3,500 of a half-million combat troops.
Likewise in October 2001, just weeks after 9/11, Republican George W. Bush ordered troops into Afghanistan to capture al Qaeda’s bin Laden and rout the ruthless Taliban. The hunt for bin Laden morphed into reconstruction and nation-building at a total financial cost now approaching $3 trillion.
Answering a news conference question last week, Biden said he was unilaterally extending the U.S. military presence through this year and would not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline. He added that he did not see an American troop presence at this time next year, the twenty-first there.
That, however, is one of those mealy-mouthed “commitments” designed to get a politician out of a rhetorical corner without saying anything specifically damaging that could be thrown back at him at this time next year when some counter-insurgency troops still remain. “Well, I never guaranteed it and circumstances have changed.”
As someone who covered parts of Vietnam’s deadly downfall, most importantly the painfully chaotic U.S. departure in April 1975, you’ll excuse my glaring skepticism that the most recent words of Joe Biden, the third commander-in-chief to address the bloody deployment, really augur the end of this agonizing national ordeal.