U.S. President Joe Biden’s seminal decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 2021 is a dramatic shift for U.S. policy, yet it is also a continuation of pathways begun under his predecessor. Like former president Donald Trump, Biden aims to extricate the United States from forever wars and focus on other challenges, including those closer to home. Unlike Trump, Biden and his administration have the attention span to see it through.
Upon taking office, Biden inherited a U.S. policy dilemma on Afghanistan that amounted to having been painted into a corner. In 2018, the Trump team—seeing that previous administrations’ efforts at both waging counterinsurgency campaigns and urging negotiations had borne limited fruit—chose to begin direct talks with the Taliban. This oft-halting process culminated in the 2020 Doha Agreement between the two sides. It laid out that the United States would withdraw by May 2021 and facilitate some Taliban prisoner releases, in exchange for Taliban pledges on counterterrorism, direct talks with the Afghan government, and refraining from specific attacks.
How Biden Differs From Trump on Afghanistan
A major difference between the two administrations is whether the president claimed any U.S. withdrawal would be based on security and political conditions on the ground. Trump himself repeatedly allowed his own withdrawal impulses to be checked, after military voices argued that the current situation was not conducive to a drawdown. Importantly, as foreign policy analyst Laurel Miller has noted, declaring that an exit will be “conditions based” does not necessarily make it so. Indeed, monitoring any conditions on the ground in Afghanistan remains hard, as disputes over adherence to the Doha Agreement show. Credible reporting suggests that the Taliban gradually re-escalated violence over 2020 and fell short on counterterrorism pledges, rather than upholding their Doha commitments. But the fog of war, mutual contestation of facts, and the Trump administration’s trademark messaging chaos all made it hard to argue that the United States should not leave as pledged in light of the Taliban not honoring its own commitments.
By contrast, Biden dispensed with the claim of a conditions-based exit and rejected the entire pursuit of one as an intellectual strawman. He argued the United States lacked “clear answers to the following questions: Just what conditions would be required to allow us to depart? By what means and how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost in lives and treasure?” Indeed, when it came to discarding the conditions-based exit refrain, it seems that it was Biden who said the quiet part out loud, rather than Trump—a change from the traditional Trump modus operandi.
There are other changes between the two administrations, both stylistic and substantive. In contrast to Trump’s hostility to foreign aid, the Biden administration emphasizes nonmilitary assistance to Afghanistan and has already moved to increase it to cushion the likely humanitarian and economic blow. By all accounts, the new national security team ran an inclusive, disciplined policy deliberation process before the president made the ultimate decision—a marked shift from the Trump era, when the president often tweeted first, and the bureaucracy sprang into action retroactively. The Biden team emphasizes, rather than denigrates, the role of NATO allies, who will also withdraw militarily.
But shared across both presidencies is a painful underlying truth: ending American participation in the Afghan conflict does not actually mean ending the endless war. On the contrary, Afghanistan is likely to see still more instability in the coming months and years.
Biden’s Disillusionment with Afghanistan
For close readers of Biden’s foreign policy archives, his withdrawal decision comes as little surprise. Though he initially supported an expansive U.S. role in Afghanistan, voting for the war in 2001 and advocating for increased security and reconstruction aid as late as 2008, he became increasingly disillusioned with the situation in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Visiting Kabul that February, he reportedly became so frustrated with the administration of then Afghan president Hamid Karzai that he walked out of their dinner. After becoming vice president in 2009, Biden preferred a more limited counterterrorism mission to the eventual surge, and he voiced frustration that the Pentagon would “jam” then president Barack Obama into sending more troops. More recently, Afghanistan played a scant role on the 2020 campaign trail, but when Biden did speak on it, he committed to troop withdrawals and ending America’s forever wars.
What Comes Next
The long-term consequences of Biden’s withdrawal decision remain to be seen. Almost immediately after his announcement, the next scheduled round of peace talks were postponed because the Taliban pulled out, likely ushering in a longer freeze in the process. In the medium run, the key open question is whether the Afghan government will remain viable as its conflict with the Taliban likely intensifies and foreign troops withdraw, yet external aid continues to flow. The United States and its international partners will still have modest, although greatly diminished, means to shape outcomes—in the form of economic aid, security assistance, sanctions, and diplomatic engagement. A vital question is whether and how these tools can influence issues the international community cares about: counterterrorism, democracy, human rights, and alleviating the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, the story will rapidly become one not of U.S. presidents’ policy toward Afghanistan at all, but of Afghans’ agency to write their own future. The Taliban are coy on their governance goals but decidedly not democrats. Yet a wide array of Afghans is deeply invested in the constitutional republic and will resist fiercely any Taliban-attempted takeover. Where will it all land? To take a long-standing refrain from former president Trump: “We’ll see what happens.”