U.S. President Joe Biden has a goal and he won’t be dissuaded, not by dead marines, nor desperate Afghan allies, dismayed NATO partners, or dropping poll numbers.
He wants American troops out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
This fall is supposed to be the spring of America’s post-post-9/11 era, a new beginning for a nation eager to turn the page on two decades of perpetual war.
If so, the era concludes as it began: in bloodshed.
The deaths of a more than a dozen American service members and dozens more Afghan civilians rocked U.S. evacuation efforts in Kabul on Thursday.
It was the deadliest day for U.S. forces in precisely one decade, since the downing of a military helicopter in Afghanistan in August 2011.
WATCH | Aftermath of the blasts:
A White House spokeswoman suggested it was the worst day of his presidency. Biden himself began a news conference with a blunt understatement.
“It’s been a tough day,” he said.
The suicide attacks have left the president pursuing two competing objectives, underscoring the complexity of the pullout.
One, Biden promised to pursue members of the ISIS cell responsible for the attack: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Two, he promised to leave Afghanistan as planned, and to keep withdrawing Americans, and Afghan allies, ahead of a scheduled Aug. 31 deadline.
“It was time to end a 20-year war,” he said Thursday.
Biden has sustained swift political damage.
Any plunge in his public-opinion polling leaves Democrats in grave danger of losing control of Congress in next year’s legislative midterm elections.
And plunge it has; Biden’s net approval rating has dropped 10 percentage points this month in an average of surveys compiled by the RealClearPolitics site.
Some of that drop might be attributable to the worsening pandemic, though most of the shift has occurred in the days since the Taliban took Kabul.
The polling also reveals the sour American mood regarding Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda still present
Thursday’s attacks underscore that terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, remain in the country — a point already made in United Nations reports.
Critics had warned for weeks, including some in Biden’s party, that the pullout was happening too quickly and with too little co-ordination with allies.
One such critic said the attacks demonstrated the risk of trusting the Taliban to run the country.
“The Taliban promised they would secure the perimeter [around the airport]. They didn’t,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an air force veteran and not-especially partisan Republican congressman.
“Obviously our exit didn’t end the ‘endless war.’ The enemy gets a vote too.”
Biden has made clear his determination to see Afghanistan in his rear-view mirror.
This fall, he wants to focus on the road ahead — both metaphorically, and, in the case of his signature $1 trillion infrastructure bill, literally.
His party has set a target next month of passing multi-trillion-dollar bills through Congress that would enact the bulk of his domestic agenda: new highways, bridges, electric vehicles, a green power grid, universal child care, family leave and immigration reform.
On foreign policy, Biden says it’s time to shift his country’s attention and resources to the big emerging challenge of competition with China.
In a sense, he shares the goals of his predecessors.
3 presidents, 1 common goal
For all their obvious differences, recent American presidents have taken office holding a pair of broadly similar objectives.
One is to end costly foreign wars, and spend more of America’s wealth at home, on domestic causes.
The other is to steer focus away from old entanglements in the Middle East and Afghanistan, toward newer priorities in Asia.
Donald Trump dedicated his inaugural address to that vision.
Trump lamented how the U.S. had embarked on expensive nation-building exercises abroad, while neglecting American needs.
He promised a new, America-first attitude and planned to spend historic sums on road infrastructure.
On the foreign front, Trump ultimately reached an agreement with the Taliban for U.S. withdrawal. His presidency ended before the withdrawal, and Biden is seeing it through.
Trump’s presidency also ended without passing his coveted infrastructure plan.
Trump did, however, shift the U.S.’s foreign-policy focus eastward — to competing with China, and that has survived his presidency.
Barack Obama, for his part, spoke of a so-called pivot in foreign policy, toward new priorities in Asia.
His view of the Middle East as a drain of American attention was underscored in a lengthy interview with The Atlantic late in his presidency, in which Obama was keen to talk about a brilliant young inventor he’d just met in the Philippines.
The interviewer wanted to talk about ISIS and Obama lamented that the U.S. was missing economic opportunities because it was too distracted by “malicious, nihilistic, violent” adversaries.
Obama wound up sending additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 and has written about the intense backroom debates involving that decision.
What Biden told Obama about Afghanistan
Obama identifies, in his post-presidential memoir, the senior adviser who tried hardest to get him to reconsider the Afghan surge plan: Biden.
Biden lost faith in the mission many years ago.
Obama writes that his vice-president returned dismayed from a 2009 trip and an unpleasant meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
As Pentagon officials clamoured for a surge, Biden pushed back.
“He saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire.” Obama writes in his memoir, A Promised Land.
“Joe caught up to me and gripped my arm. ‘Listen to me, boss,’ he said. ‘Maybe I’ve been around this town [Washington] for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president.’ He brought his face a few inches from mine and stage-whispered, ‘Don’t let them jam you.'”
And here we are today.
Biden will do what his predecessors didn’t. He’ll leave Afghanistan — even if it means some Afghan allies get left behind; some members of the U.K. Parliament condemn him; some Canadians get stranded; and his public-approval numbers sink.
He wanted to end the post-9/11 era. The bloody chapter in U.S. history began with suicide attacks on Americans, and Americans vowing to kill terrorists.
And it’ll end that way too, if this is, in fact, the end.