Why Joe Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal doesn’t mark the end of America’s “forever war”

In common with Donald Trump, the US president has further blurred the distinction between war and peace.

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When did America’s “forever war” begin? Several years ago I put up a Twitter poll – highly scientific, of course – asking that question. 11 September 2001 was a popular answer. But there were others.

There was 1947, when the Cold War started; 1941, when the US intervened in the Second World War and built the largest military state known to history; and 1898, to which the country’s overseas empire is conventionally dated, including its brutal counterinsurgency in the Philippines. In another poll, 1492 – the year the New World was discovered – did well. Every American war since, after all, has been suffused by parallels to “Indian war”. It was not for nothing that, moments after special forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the leader of Seal Team Six radioed back his quarry’s code name, a one-time native foe: “For God and country – Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.”

When something ends is rarely obvious either. On 14 April, Joe Biden announced that the US’s troop presence in Afghanistan will finally drop to zero on 11 September – 20 years to the day since Bin Laden’s agents attacked the World Trade Center. “It is time to end the forever war,” Biden said

It was understandable that the growing American peace party was jubilant in response. Stephen Wertheim, a policy intellectual at the Quincy Institute in Washington DC, suggested that Biden was not just giving up Afghanistan. He also foreswore “extravagant ends” that are unrelated to US security, marking a “historic break from the logic” of forever war. And there is no doubt that anti-war forces scored a significant victory in pressuring Biden to take the step he did. The standard-bearers for this view in Congress, the Democratic representative Ro Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders, rightly called Biden’s decision “courageous” – at least because he “overrode the military brass” who are theoretically his subordinates.

Likewise, the US’s historic war party predictably vented. Not only “entrepreneurs starting businesses” in Afghanistan were at risk without Americans protecting them, wailed the neoconservative commentator Max Boot – the education of girls in the country would be set back too. Blithely ignoring that colonial rhetoric had justified American (and European) savagery for centuries, General HR McMaster, who served as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, lamented the abandonment of “Afghans on a modern day frontier between barbarism and civilization”. There will be losers from Biden’s choice, not just votaries of endless war but ordinary people. Their real complaint, however, is that they have little to choose between when outsiders regard apathy as the only alternative to armed might. 

But the sense of an ending, enthusiastic or rueful, depends on who is doing the sensing. For one thing, the US in effect withdrew years ago from most of Afghanistan, including the Helmand and Kandahar provinces and the Pech Valley, where battles with the Taliban and others were once intractable and vicious. Yet the deepest truth about America’s ongoing war is that the very distinction between absence and presence, and between war and peace, has been blurred by the chronological extension, geographical expansion, and evolving forms of military enterprise.

Within days of Biden’s announcement, the New York Times reported that the actual plan is to continue to shift to a different model of belligerent counterterrorism for the Afghan region. Force, instead of being deployed clumsily from up close, will simply come from afar, through drones and standoff missiles, or from small bands of special forces helicoptering in for a lethal visit. This is not even to mention “civilian” contractors or CIA deployments, which number at least 1,000 compared to the 2,500 troops Biden is drawing down. Nor is it to mention the arrogation by US presidents of permission slips to ignore national and international laws forbidding war, accumulating since whenever you think America’s endless bellicosity started. “We will not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” Biden promised in defending withdrawal from Afghanistan by demanding Americans centre China in their national security imaginary.

In fact, Biden has merely extended the policy drift that George W Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump started. All three responded to the Iraq debacle by drawing down the number of Americans deployed abroad. As Bush began the exit from Iraq, Obama (who completed it in 2011) “surged” in Afghanistan to a height of over 100,000 troops, before he reduced their number, with Trump following suit. But all three also reinvented the war by making it less territorialised and more permanent, learning that its legitimacy rises as its visibility falls. Far from definitively ending old mistakes, Biden’s move is easy to see as the same policy, only more so.

Ironically, the anger and fatigue of activists who introduced the hashtag #endendlesswar in 2014, a slogan that many presidential candidates (including Biden) were forced to mouth, could abet this transformation. Trump, who also adopted the meme, made Afghan withdrawal possible for his successor, struggling through the last days of his administration to “end” the Afghan war that Biden can now claim to usher out of existence. But Trump increased the use of drones and special forces to all-time highs.

As for prior empires that attempted to exert control in Afghanistan, the campaign has been a fruitless enterprise for the US from nearly the day it arrived. Citizens never “knew the magnitude of this dysfunction”, General Douglas Lute, who as “war czar” oversaw the intervention for three years, observed. Any real end would require acknowledgment of the harms and reorientation, not withdrawal alone (which would be the easy part). “The notion of being harshly introspective will be next to politically impossible,” Lute remarked. It still is.

Beginnings are forever in dispute, though no one can do without them. Endings, too, “give meaning to lives and to poems”, wrote the English critic Frank Kermode. “Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest,’ in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with beginnings and ends.” When people and poets reckon with the tragedy of America’s endless war in our time, however, it is highly doubtful that it will make any sense to choose this coming September as the moment it stopped.

Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a Professor of History at Yale University. His books include The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.

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