US Envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke disagreed with President Obama after the latter planned a large troop increase, as requested by the military. His argument was that a rapid increase will afterward mean reduction, and this will send the wrong message to the Afghans that it is a temporary boost and that Americans will soon leave. Holbrooke's proposal was different: Don't increase troops, but keep a reasonable number, because this will send the right message to the Afghan people and the Taliban: We will stay and you have to negotiate with us. Holbrooke was looking for diplomatic ammunition, and what made it worse was that Obama's approval of the troop surge was temporary, to be followed by a significant reduction, and then the final exit.
President Trump followed the same direction and sought a permanent and swift departure. He decided to greatly reduce the number of troops to repair his reputation, which was damaged by his administration's confused handling of the COVID-19 crisis. He reportedly backed out after hearing advice from military leaders that the repercussions of the withdrawal could be risky. Trump's idea of troop withdrawal is part of his thinking and political propaganda. On more than one occasion he said that he was not convinced of the Afghanistan war, saying that it was an expensive and ridiculous war. Following a telephone conversation with Turkish President Erdogan, he suddenly decided to withdraw troops from Syria, but he was later dissuaded by senior republicans and the Pentagon.
President Biden is no different from his predecessors, as he followed in their footsteps. The Taliban actually won and occupied Kabul in theory, not now, but when the US President announced the complete withdrawal in April 2021. The second strike was when US forces stealthily withdrew from Bagram Air Base without alerting the Afghan military command, which felt abandoned. The message was clear; the Americans are leaving, the Taliban are staying, and the Afghans have to choose. Despite the chaotic exit, which the US intelligence has warned of, President Biden knows exactly what he is doing. The question is clear: Is the withdrawal from Afghanistan electorally beneficial to him at home or not? The answer is clear, it is useful because the vast majority of Americans are against this long war, dubbed "the endless war" by some infuriated politicians. Obama and Trump had the same motive, but Biden did it and decided to proceed with his decision despite the warnings.
Indeed, this has been President Biden's view since he was a senator. He repeatedly demanded a troop withdrawal and not falling for the military's tricks and stalling. The goal, as he reiterated then, is to defeat al-Qaeda and the terrorist groups, not to build the Afghan nation.
It was a random and embarrassing exodus, but does it really matter in the long run? Certainly, the scenes of chaos and crowds at the airport and those clinging to the departing plane will have temporary reactions, but more importantly, this is the end of a 20-year war, which could continue further as he said in his last speech. Internal factors are strong and play a big role in making even bigger decisions. Americans will see Biden as the one who ended the war that has exhausted them and depleted their funds, something that others had been unable to do. Voters will reward him for this decision, even if those abroad think he betrayed them and made the wrong decision.
Despite the important strategic analyses of the withdrawal decision, we must not lose sight of the importance of internal factors for making critical decisions, perhaps the strongest factors behind these decisions. History tells us that US presidents made major foreign policy decisions based on internal electoral factors, just as when President Eisenhower ended the Korean War, and opposed his closest allies, Israel, France, and Britain, during the 1956 war because of the impending elections, among other reasons.
Will Afghanistan become a hotbed for terrorist groups? Will Afghan women be persecuted? Will Afghanistan be ravaged by chaos? No one yet knows the answers to these questions, but whatever they are, the Biden administration has considered them carefully and knows that at least an insignificant minority of Americans will go to the ballot boxes thinking about these pressing questions, for now at least.
This article was originally published and translated from the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.