President Joe Biden will force some 3,000 American troops to spend an additional four months risking their lives in Afghanistan seemingly in the name of symbolism.
The White House now plans to withdraw the last American troops from Afghanistan on September 11 of this year, The New York Times and other outlets reported Tuesday, rather than holding to the May 1 deadline established by the Trump administration last year. That May 1 deadline was the result of peace negotiations with the Taliban, and the Times noted that the new plan risks "an increase in violence—which the Taliban have threatened if the United States kept troops beyond May 1."
Ah, but a little more violence is nothing compared to the allure of a symbolic withdrawal on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that drew America into its longest-ever war in the first place, right?
Absent from the White House's explanation for the change in plans—delivered to the media via unnamed officials, naturally—is any discussion of what will be accomplished by keeping American troops on the ground in Afghanistan for an extra 134 days after May 1. What critical national security goals has the military been unable to achieve in the past 19-and-a-half years that will suddenly be within reach this summer? There are ongoing worries that the barely functional government in Kabul will collapse as soon as the American military is gone, but is there any reason to believe that that is any less likely to happen in September than it is in May? If so, White House and Pentagon officials should articulate those reasons.
If not, this looks like a foolish strategic decision that invites conflict. After all, what would American military officials say and do if the Taliban suddenly reneged on its side of the Doha Agreement for a purely figurative goal.
About the only good thing to be said about Tuesday's announcement is that it does contain a certain end date for the withdrawal of American troops. Maintaining a commitment to ending the war and bringing the troops home should be of the utmost importance.
Unfortunately, the delay is already creating openings for advocates of neverending war. John Bolton, the former George W. Bush and Donald Trump advisor and physical embodiment of the reckless interventionism that has defined the past two decades of U.S. foreign policy, responded to Tuesday's announcement by tweeting that "a full unconditional retreat of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is reckless." Leaving Afghanistan means "the Afghan government will likely fall, & terrorists will enjoy a resurgence threatening America," Bolton wrote.
A four-month delay in withdrawing U.S. forces means four more months for the Biden administration to be swayed into staying even longer.
"Biden should provide the Taliban and critics at home who could try to be spoilers with clear signal that we are definitely on the way out—and that no new conditions are being applied," wrote Will Ruger, the vice president for policy at the Charles Koch Institute who had been nominated by Trump to be the next ambassador to Afghanistan (Ruger was never confirmed and his nomination was returned by the Senate in January). "It would be an unnecessary shame for even one more American to die in this conflict."
More than 2,300 Americans have died in Afghanistan since the war began, and the Biden administration seems willing to add a few more lives to that grim tally just so we can all enjoy the poetic symmetry of historical occasions. I'm sure that will bring comfort to the families and friends of any American soldiers that might be killed in June, July, or August.