In the earliest days of Joe Biden’s brief time in the White House, the new president signed a flurry of high-profile executive orders rolling back some of Trump’s most outrageous actions, and seeming to take the country in a radical new direction. Staggering the orders over days and weeks for maximum public impact, each new round of measures was greeted with wall-to-wall press coverage, usually recycling the administration’s own talking points about their boldness and transformational nature, neatly slotting into a pre-set media narrative about the country returning to “normal” under a historically, impossibly progressive new leader.
It was only well after this first tidal wave of positive press, when journalists had time to really consider their fine print, talk to experts and industry representatives, or simply observe the real-world impacts that followed, that media outlets would point out the underwhelming reality of many of the praise-chasing orders — and usually in column spaces far less-read than the initial, blaring headlines that broadcast the White House’s preferred message.
This same pattern now seems to be repeating itself with this latest, much-ballyhooed announcement.
While it fits with the general tenor of Biden coverage up to now, the industrial-scale media flattery that’s greeted the withdrawal announcement is odd for a couple of reasons. One is that these same press outlets spent the past three years screaming bloody murder whenever Trump, in one of the handful of genuinely good things he tried to do as president, indicated he wanted to pull out of Afghanistan, including as recently as a few months ago. For years, bypassing and ignoring the advice of military commanders, especially as it related to troop withdrawals, was treated as one of Trump’s most shocking scandals; now that Biden did it, it’s suddenly brave and righteous.
More importantly, Biden hasn’t actually declared a withdrawal from Afghanistan. That had already been negotiated and agreed to last year, when Trump, scrambling for a political win in an election year, made a deal with the Taliban to be out of the country by this May.
Rather, after dithering for months, to the frustration of the same generals whose opinion we were all meant to care about until last week, Biden has delayed ending the war for another four months, before making a high-profile speech taking credit for something he not only hadn’t done but was in practice actively resisting doing. Naturally, he received the same kind of rapturous media praise that followed, say, his immigration executive orders, sold by a supportive press as dismantling some of Trump’s most controversial measures when they actually kept them in place.
The Biden White House’s cynicism here is less important than the prospect of the United States finally ending this hideous, pointless war. Just as Trump claimed credit for the painfully slow economic recovery engineered by his predecessor, politicians do this kind of thing all the time.
But for anyone who actually wants to see the United States leave the “graveyard of empires,” Biden’s delay shouldn’t be a moment for celebration. At worst, Biden is doing what so many administrations do, including the one he served as vice president in: loudly proclaiming the end of a war for political points while quietly figuring out some way to keep it going, usually through endless delays. At best, to give himself back the time for an orderly drawdown that he lost by sitting on his hands for three months, he’s unwittingly increasing the chances the withdrawal will be scuttled.
That’s not an exaggeration. Biden’s delay is an unambiguous violation of the deal Trump struck with the Taliban, and the latter are treating it that way, threatening attacks on US troops who are still in the country past the agreed-upon deadline and refusing to attend an upcoming peace summit with the Afghan government in Turkey in response. With violence in the country on the rise and the Taliban on the brink of their annual spring offensive, the coming months could see a surge in attacks, military conquests, and US body bags — either the perfect pretext or a valid, urgent reason to scuttle an Afghanistan pullout entirely. Even assuming the purest motives, the administration’s warning to the Taliban that it would retaliate against any attacks on US troops makes the likelihood of a back-and-forth escalation all the greater.
But even if Biden does nominally follow through on his promise to get US troops out by September, the more we read the fine print of the withdrawal, the more we have reason to worry. Unnamed “current and former American officials” have already told the New York Times that the Biden administration will “most likely” simply replace official US troops with spies, Special Forces, and private military contractors. Other unnamed officials have also told the paper the plan is to load up surrounding countries with US forces, then use drones and planes to kill suspected terrorists, the same way it does all over North Africa and the Middle East. If an invading force pulled troops out of the United States but continued bombing and sending covert forces into it, ask yourself if you’d think the war had finished.
Essentially, Biden is relegating Afghanistan to the “counterterrorism-plus” formulation he devised under Obama, a clever way to wage war on more countries than ever without the domestic political blowback that tends to come with full-blown invasion. As Spencer Ackerman pointed out, in his speech, Biden partly justified the pullout on the grounds that terrorism had “become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe.” It made no sense to throw thousands of troops and billions of dollars at one country when, Biden implied, the US government should be doing that all over the world, including in Syria and Iraq. He might be wrapping up one pointless war, but Biden’s doubling down on another, much bigger one.
Maybe more ominously, Biden also cited something else to justify ending the war: the need to take on China. Along with the fact that China hawk Tony Blinken was reportedly the driving force behind the decision to get out of Afghanistan, the announcement looks less like a dovish pivot by the most progressive government in human history, as is being sold to the public, and more like a reallocation of resources for a completely different and much more dangerous conflict. Like winter into spring, one Forever War might be ending, but a new one is set to take its place.
All the indications we’re getting so far suggest Biden will continue fighting some kind of conflict in Afghanistan even once all US troops formally withdraw, however scaled down, and it’s still far from certain even that’s going to happen. Meanwhile, other signs point to the president elsewhere escalating the endless global warfare that’s done so much damage to both ordinary people around the world and their counterparts in the United States. It should be the job of the press to explain all this to the public. But you can barely hear it over the sound of the pom-poms.