Much was to be made in the 2020 campaign about Joe Biden’s promise to be the most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most of that commentary was centered around his domestic programs, but some discussion was given to foreign policy—particularly promises to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, renew the START nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, and re-enter the nuclear agreement with Iran.
While the US will resume participation in the Paris Climate Accords, most climate scientists believe the Paris Accords are not enough to sufficiently mitigate climate change. President Biden renewed the START agreement, but any commitment to nuclear disarmament is belied by his continuation of a $1.5 trillion US nuclear arms build-up and bellicose rhetoric and actions towards China and Russia—including the construction of new nuclear capable American missile bases within a ten minute flight time of Chinese and Russian cities. The Biden team’s decidedly hostile approach towards restarting negotiations with Iran—an approach which received applause from Jared Kushner—along with airstrikes on Iranian-linked militiamen in Syria, hardly signals a progressive transformation of the disastrous US policies in the Muslim world.
President Biden has an opportunity to not only realize progressive change, but begin a new era of US leadership that accepts the failure of American warfare, atones for imperial hubris, and instead leads the world cooperatively.
These are real disappointments for those of us who experienced, and recognize, continued US foreign policy as inept, fiscally ruinous, morally bankrupt and existentially dangerous. To that, no greater bleeding wound exists for the United States in the world than the unending Global War on Terror. Here, President Biden has an opportunity to not only realize progressive change, but begin a new era of US leadership that accepts the failure of American warfare, atones for imperial hubris, and instead leads the world cooperatively. Such leadership is needed to confront truly urgent threats like pandemics, climate change, and nuclear annihilation, and to address the mass inequality, poverty, misogyny, corruption and other societal harms that devastate and oppress billions. President Biden can start with Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan has been ongoing for more than forty years. For nearly half of that, the US has had ground soldiers in Afghanistan, killing and being killed. Any objective observer, meaning anyone without ties of legacy, career or money to the war or war industry, will acknowledge the campaign has not only failed, but has been counterproductive. Consider just two demonstrative facts: In the years prior to the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan (and Pakistan) were home to four international terror groups. Now, the Pentagon testifies that the number of such terror groups has grown to twenty or more. Also, when the US first invaded Afghanistan, al-Qaeda counted around 400 total members. Al-Qaeda has since spawned branches and off-shoots—including the Islamic State—in dozens of countries, with total memberships in the tens of thousands, and have, at times, controlled entire cities in multiple countries.
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Meanwhile, the Afghan people have suffered through a living nightmare unimaginable to most Westerners. The U.S. has poured trillions of dollars and thousands of lives into the Afghan War with no success other than the promotions of generals and the profits of weapons companies. The prospect of wasting more lives in pursuit of this war should sicken all but the select few with vested interests—of money, legacy or career—in the status quo.
The U.S. has poured trillions of dollars and thousands of lives into the Afghan War with no success other than the promotions of generals and the profits of weapons companies.
President Biden has announced US forces will leave Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban have already stated they will not proceed with negotiations as the May 1 deadline agreed to by President Trump to withdraw US forces will not be met. However, clear and transparent communication between the US, the Afghan and the Taliban may help mitigate this violation. The Taliban are looking for an assurance that foreign forces will leave and will undoubtedly take a delayed withdrawal of several months rather than risking a resumption of US military commitment to Afghanistan that would be the product of renewed Taliban attacks against foreign military forces and a dissolution of the peace process.
Such renewed violence will only serve those who gain fiscally and politically from this war. If US-Taliban fighting begins again, the violence will only escalate and yield unintended and unpredictable consequences. If the Global War on Terror has taught us anything, it is that the ancient amorphism of "violence begets violence" remains true. For this reason President Biden, regardless of what occurs in the next several months, must stay committed to full withdrawal. This will force the Afghan government to continue negotiations, which is necessary, while providing the Taliban with reason to continue as well. The Afghan people, after more than 40 years of war, need and deserve this peace process.
President Biden may not get such an opportunity to begin the long process of harm reduction in US foreign policy as he does with Afghanistan. Embracing peace, particularly by leading a diverse grouping of nations, including Russia, China and Iran, in assisting the Afghan peace process, can be the first of many achievements he has in the White House to undo military catastrophe, bring reconciliation and stability to broken nations, and actually strengthen America’s standing in the world. Now that would be the mark of a progressive president.