The continuity in the Trump and Biden approaches to Afghanistan points to the new consensus across the political divide on the futility of prolonged wars of intervention.
President Joe Biden’s unapologetic defence this week of his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the botched final days of the retreat is an inflection point in the evolution of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Biden’s definitive call on walking away from Afghanistan is the culmination of a prolonged US domestic debate. It brings to a close the expansive American effort to remake other societies in the name of US global leadership. After three decades of spending American blood and treasure in fighting insurgents and terrorists in the Greater Middle East, Biden now wants America to focus on the larger and more demanding challenges presented by great power rivals — China and Russia.
Biden’s scepticism of the Afghan war is blunt but not new, and dates back to the years when he was the vice president to Barack Obama (2009-17). American frustration with the Afghan occupation has been gathering pace for more than a decade. President Obama was not enthusiastic about the wars of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq launched by his predecessor George W Bush. Obama ended the war in Iraq in 2011. He was eager to wrap up the Afghan occupation by 2014, but left the final decision to his successor. President Donald Trump had even less ownership of the Afghan war. He pivoted to finding a political settlement with the Taliban that facilitated the safe withdrawal of US troops, but devalued the political legitimacy of the Kabul government. After a quick review of the Trump policy, Biden decided to uphold it. The continuity in the Trump and Biden approaches to Afghanistan points to the new consensus across the political divide on the futility of prolonged wars of intervention.
As Biden put it, the decision was “not just about Afghanistan”, but “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”. It is based on a new American political consensus on a narrower definition of US national interests. Trump called it putting “America First”. Biden is developing a “foreign policy that works for the American middle class”. There is also continuity between the Trump and Biden Administrations in assessing the nature of the Chinese threat, the urgency of dealing with it, and the importance of avoiding distractions like Afghanistan. Although the messy evacuation from Kabul has drawn many brickbats for Biden, there is much political support for the withdrawal itself and his promise to focus on emerging challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 4, 2021 under the title ‘The Biden doctrine’.
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