Biden, pulling combat forces from Iraq, seeks to end the post-9/11 era
By Anne Gearan,
President Biden has announced the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He has started transferring prisoners from Guantánamo Bay in hopes of eventually shutting down the prison. And on Monday, he will welcome Iraq’s prime minister to the White House for an expected announcement that U.S. combat forces will leave that country within months.
The moves reflect what is emerging as an unmistakable pillar of Biden’s foreign policy: seeking to push America past the post-9/11 phase of its history, ending 20 years of relentless focus on the Middle East and terrorism rather than threats like China and cyberattacks. The United States needs to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” Biden has said.
Gil Barndollar, a former Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan, said it’s past time to wind down the war machinery of the post-9/11 era.
“It’s overdue,” said Barndollar, a senior fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank. “We have something like four times the number of jihadist groups as there were on 9/11. The global war on terror has failed by just about any measure.”
But the trauma of the terrorist attacks two decades ago — which came out of a clear blue sky to kill nearly 3,000 Americans — has not faded, and some warn against turning the page prematurely. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has called Biden’s approach “ a disaster in the making” that risks a resurgence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, or ISIS.
And there are multiple signs that a clean break will not be easy. The Taliban has made significant gains in Afghanistan since the United States began pulling out. The American diplomats who remain there face significant challenges. Biden continues grappling with whether Iran, a key Middle East adversary, can be coaxed back into a nuclear deal.
In Iraq, Biden faces pressure to do more against Iranian-backed attacks, and by leaving some noncombat forces behind in the country, the administration appears to acknowledge a continuing military mission there, if a lower-profile one.
“The goal is the defeat of ISIS,” said one administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “The role of U.S. forces and coalition forces will recede deep into the background.”
Biden’s aides stress that the United States maintains broad economic, humanitarian and other ties to Iraq. An Iraqi delegation began meeting with officials at the Pentagon, State Department and elsewhere last week in a run-up to the White House visit.
Natasha Hall, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Iran’s growing influence is one of several reasons Biden’s shift might not go as planned. “If history is any guide, the U.S. risks getting sucked back into the Middle East for a range of reasons, including but not limited to terrorism,” Hall said.
The crosscurrents will be evident Monday, when Biden hosts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for meetings meant to draw a curtain on the costliest, deadliest conflict of the global war on terrorism — and one with an acutely painful legacy for the president himself.
Biden’s late son Beau Biden served as a reservist in Iraq, and Biden has said he suspects toxins from that deployment led to Beau’s fatal brain cancer. The president’s son died in 2015.
Biden and Kadhimi will shake hands on a plan to formally end the U.S. combat mission within about five months, the administration official said.
The U.S. military will retain a training and advisory role, however, and it is not yet clear whether the current force of about 2,500 would actually get much smaller. The United States had about 170,000 troops in Iraq in 2007, at the height of the U.S.-led war against al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
The official would not discuss the projected force size.
More than 4,000 U.S. troops were killed in a war that began with a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the vast majority before 2011, when the U.S. military formally declared an end to the war. A small counterterrorism mission remains, and that is what is now being downshifted.
“No one is going to declare, ‘Mission accomplished,’ ” the official said.
That was the woefully premature slogan associated with President George W. Bush, who delivered an ill-fated 2003 speech before a banner proclaiming it.
Still, the official called the moment “important and poignant” after some 18 years of American entanglement in Iraq.
For Biden, the persistent U.S. presence, and the ongoing risk to U.S. troops there, makes no sense in Afghanistan and only a little in Iraq at a time when an increasingly powerful, wealthy and aggressive superpower like China is on the rise.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said in April, when he announced the U.S. withdrawal there. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”
Biden originally supported the war in Iraq, and he also backed the invasion of Afghanistan at first. As a senator, he attended a 2002 ceremony at the White House when Bush signed a bill authorizing the use of force against Iraq, after accusing its then-leader, Saddam Hussein, of amassing weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found.
Just last month, the House voted to repeal that 19-year-old permission slip, which critics have argued was misused and is now outdated. Biden gave his blessing to the move.
Like many Americans, Biden’s views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the longer the conflicts dragged on — especially the invasion of Iraq, which had little or nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By 2005, he was calling his Iraq vote a mistake.
As vice president, Biden argued against the troop surge that President Barack Obama ordered in Afghanistan in 2009. And now that he is president himself, Biden has taken to invoking the adage about the futility of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said in April. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
He is also hewing to his own suspicions that Pentagon leaders will always argue to stay in a fight or add forces to it, said people who have spoken to Biden about Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama’s new memoir records Biden as issuing strong advice about the brass.
“‘Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president,’ ” Obama says Biden told him. “‘Don’t let them jam you.’ ”
Biden has ordered a global “posture review” of U.S. military deployments, “so that our military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities.”
Monday’s Oval Office meeting with Kadhimi follows a similar session last month with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in which Biden was matter-of-fact about the U.S. imperative to leave.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” Biden said.
The United States will help, he promised, but the support from now on would be largely financial, not military. Biden had announced in April that the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 this year, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the withdrawal is already effectively complete.
The U.S. official said the counterterrorism mission in Syria, a parallel to the one in Iraq, will continue for now.
Kadhimi has a delicate task. Biden wants to disentangle the U.S. military, and the Iraqi parliament also has demanded withdrawal of combat forces. Kadhimi hopes, however, for continued U.S. military support.
“We are seeking a long-term strategic partnership,” he said in a recent interview with David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post.
“Iraqis are now ready to stand up on their feet and protect themselves,” Kadhimi added. “We are no longer in need of U.S. combat troops. At the same time, we will continue to need intelligence support, training, capacity building and advice.”
The current U.S. mission in Iraq is supposed to be directed at the Islamic State extremist group, although separate Iranian-backed militias regularly target U.S. facilities in the country. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has counted 24 attacks since Biden took office and three U.S. retaliatory strikes.
But despite any lingering skirmishes or flare-ups, Biden’s intent to shift America’s global focus is clear.
“The administration is making a calculated decision that it can invest less in the Middle East relative to other threats, particularly coming off of 20-plus years of an arguably over-militarized approach to the region,” said Elisa Ewers, a fellow with the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security.
While some analysts suggest that the war on terror has failed, given the persistence of extremist groups, Ewers contends that it has largely succeeded, as evidenced by the lack of major terrorist attacks on U.S. targets since 2001. But she agrees the mission makes less sense now.
“Is terrorism the single most critical threat to the U.S.?” she said. “Probably not.”
Obama also tried to downshift in the Middle East and focus more on Asia, only to be derailed by a war that erupted in Syria on his watch.
Biden’s focus on China has held so far, however, including sanctions and condemnations of human rights abuses in Hong Kong and a continuation of former president Donald Trump’s protectionist tariffs. European leaders were willing to go along with Biden’s tougher stance on China, to a point at least, when he pressed them during his first foreign trip as president in June.
None of this means confronting China will be easy, given its determination to challenge America’s role as the world’s dominant power.
“China is playing hardball. They want very much to be the dominant state,” another senior administration official said in an interview. “They also want to help usher us off the stage in a variety of ways.”
Redirecting U.S. foreign policy means not only a change in mind-set, but a new effort to build up the kind of infrastructure and capacity in Asia that the United States has long had in the Middle East.
“This is going to be hard,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “It’s going to require . . . a major regional shift from the Middle East to Asia. We’ve never had Asia as the central focus. That’s new.”