New York (Brussels Morning) Shortly after the tragic attack at Kabul airport on August 26th that killed over one hundred people including 13 American service members, President Biden addressed the American people. In addition to expressing his sadness at the loss of life, particularly the lives of the American troops, Biden had some thoughts for the people who committed this act. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
These remarks are not unusual from an American President; pledging to go after people who have killed American troops is not exactly a novel idea. There was also an ironic echo in Biden’s remarks. They brought to mind the even stronger words from a different American president, with a different foreign policy vision from a different political party twenty years ago when President George W. Bush, following the attack of September 11th, promised “the people who knocked down these buildings will hear from us soon.” Bush’s words represented the kind of thinking – including a focus on revenge rather than security – that led to the twenty-year war in Afghanistan.
Biden’s essential dilemma is that he it is not easy to simply let attacks like the one last week or any in the coming days go unanswered. However, he must be extremely careful about responding to the attacks in a way that drags the US back into the conflict in Afghanistan. To take the political risk of withdrawing from Afghanistan, engaging in a messy but ultimately extremely successful evacuation effort and withstanding weeks of attacks from Republicans and the bipartisan foreign policy establishment only to end up going back into Afghanistan would be a disaster for Biden, and the US.
Biden’s dilemma illustrates the foundational paradox of American intervention anywhere. The presence of American troops means the presence of American targets. Inevitably, enemies of the US find these targets. The US is then faced with a choice to either increase their presence and expand the war, an approach that very rarely is a wise long term strategy, or give in to the attackers and leave the country. We saw this in Iraq, where attacks on American troops were used, particularly by the Bush administration, as a way to justify continued American presence there. This overlooked the more obvious truth that if there had been no US troops, it would not have been possible to attack them.
In this way, American interventions become a self-licking policy ice cream cone. We have to remain in a country to keep our troops safe because those troops are in danger, because they were sent to intervene in that country. In other words, “We’re here because we’re here.”
One unlikely model for Biden might be President Ronald Reagan who was known as a hawk and a strong supporter of the military. In October 1983, a terrorist attack by jihadists on a peacekeeping operation in Lebanon killed 307 people including 241 troops, primarily Marines, as well as 13 American civilians. Reagan made a statement offering his sincere and heartfelt sadness about the death of so many Americans and added “there are no words to express our outrage, and I think the outrage of all Americans at the despicable act.” Then, a few weeks later, Reagan ended that peacekeeping mission and brought the troops back while never retaliating against the killers. If there was political price for President Reagan, it was not evident, as a year later he won re-election in a landslide, carrying 49 states.
The dilemma Biden faces in Afghanistan is not quite the same as the one Reagan confronted after the attacks in Lebanon, but Reagan made a good statement, did not retaliate and initiated a withdrawal; and in doing that, he ensured that there would no more American casualties due to that particular intervention. That approach will draw more criticism from the usual suspects, but it is the right one for Biden. The story of the evacuation following the withdrawal will be rewritten and debated over the coming months and the initial, and largely false, narrative that this was a total mess created by Biden will likely give way to a more balanced and positive assessment. If, while that happens, there are no further attacks on American troops – something that can only be guaranteed by removing troops from Afghanistan – Biden will be in decent political shape.
In the days since the attacks at the Kabul airport, Biden has already ordered drone strikes aimed at preventing future attacks, but he has not yet retaliated against the perpetrators of the August 26th attack. The President may be bound by a promise that was more rhetoric than policy, but while it is important to track down the killers, it is essential that he not let that promise drag the US back into the war in Afghanistan.