Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
August 31, 2021
This afternoon, President Joe Biden explained to the nation why he ended the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. He reminded Americans that the purpose of the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was to destroy the ability of the Taliban to protect al-Qaeda and to capture or kill the terrorists who had attacked America on September 11, 2001. American bombing immediately weakened the Taliban, and when U.S. troops killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, we met those goals.
And yet we stayed on in Afghanistan while the terrorist threat spread across the world. Biden wants the country to face that modern threat, rather than the threat of twenty years ago. “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan,” he said.
Researchers estimate that the war in Afghanistan has cost more than 171,000 lives. It has wounded more than 20,700 U.S. service members and taken the lives of 2461 more. It has cost more than $2 trillion, which adds up to about $300 million a day for twenty years.
“After 20 years of war in Afghanistan,” Biden said, “I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.”
The president made it clear he envisions a different kind of foreign policy than the U.S. has embraced since 2002, when the Bush Doctrine, developed by the neoconservatives under Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, committed the United States to launching preemptive military actions in order to change regimes in countries we perceived as potential sponsors of terrorism—the doctrine that led us into invading Iraq in 2003, which diverted our attention and resources from Afghanistan.
“[W]e must set missions with clear, achievable goals,” Biden said. “This decision… is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries…. Moving on from that mindset and those kind of large-scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home.”
Biden has been very clear that he envisions a foreign policy based less in military personnel on the ground than in technology, the “over-the-horizon” weapons that the administration used to strike ISIS-K leaders the day after that group claimed responsibility for an attack at the gates of the Kabul airport that killed more than 160 Afghans and 13 Americans. “We will continue to support the Afghan people through diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid,” Biden said. “We’ll continue to speak out for basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls…. [H]uman rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have explained that they expect to use modern tools to combat terrorism. Today, Biden said that the way to protect human rights “is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support.”
Biden’s new approach to foreign affairs includes finances. As soon as the Afghan government fell, the U.S. and other allies withheld aid to Afghanistan and froze the country’s assets held in western banks. The World Bank stopped funding the country, the International Monetary Fund froze $460 million in emergency reserves, and the U.S. froze about $7 billion of the $9.5 billion of Afghan central bank reserves held in U.S. banks. The European Union, which had promised $1 billion to the country over the next five years, has now said that money will depend on Afghanistan’s human rights record under its new government.
Russian lawmakers and state media have been gloating that the U.S. left Afghanistan. Now, though, they suddenly find their country with the U.S. gone and an unstable Afghanistan on their doorstep. Yesterday, they called on the U.S. and its allies to unfreeze money and to work to rebuild the country, even as they warned that it would never meet U.S. standards for human rights or democracy.
Biden’s emphasis includes working with allies to combat the crises facing the globe in the twenty-first century. Today, John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, left for a four-day trip to Japan and China to advance discussions about the climate crisis, a crisis increasingly obvious in the U.S. as California wildfires have forced the evacuation of the resort town of South Lake Tahoe and the U.S. Forest Service closed all national forests in California until September 17.
More than 15,000 firefighters are combating dozens of fires in California, but the emergency personnel from Louisiana had to return to their home state to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which has knocked out electric power for hundreds of thousands.
Today, President Biden met with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and the heads of two of the largest utilities in the Gulf Coast to discuss restoring and maintaining the power grid in the face of the era’s new extreme weather events. The president also launched a 75-day comment period on how climate change is changing financial markets, focusing initially on insurers, who have $4.7 trillion worth of assets, much of which is invested. The administration is trying to understand how climate change could destabilize the economy.
Biden and Blinken have also made it clear they think nothing will strengthen America’s standing in the world more than strengthening democracy at home.
Today, the Texas legislature passed SB1, the sweeping voter suppression bill Democrats had tried to stop by walking out of the legislature to deny the Republicans a quorum. The new measure is a microcosm of voter suppression bills across the nation in Republican-dominated states.
It bans mail ballot drop boxes and gets rid of drive-through voting and extended hours. It criminalizes the distribution of applications for mail-in ballots and permits partisan poll watchers to have “free movement” in polling places, enabling them to intimidate voters. Texas is just 40% white and has 3 million unregistered voters, the vast majority of whom are Black or Latino. The new measure is designed to cut young people of color, whose numbers are growing in Texas and who are overwhelmingly Democrats, out of elections. In debates on the measure, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan asked members not to use the word “racism.”
Meanwhile, today, House Republicans have been on a media blitz to insist that the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has no right to examine the phone records of fellow congresspeople. On Tucker Carlson’s show on the Fox News Channel, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said, “These telecommunication companies, if they go along with this, they will be shut down. That’s a promise.”
There is no longer any daylight between the radical fringe like Greene and Republican leadership. Today House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who had at least one phone call with former president Trump on January 6, put out a statement warning that attempts to investigate the phone data of congresspeople from the January 6 insurrection would “put every American with a phone or a computer in the crosshairs of a surveillance state run by Democrat politicians.” If the companies comply with the committee’s request—which McCarthy mischaracterized as a “Democrat order”—he said, “a Republican majority will not forget.”
In response, representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted the legal code: 18 U.S. Code § 1505: “Whoever…by any threatening letter or communication…endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede…the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any…investigation is being had by either House…Shall be fined under this title, imprisoned…”
“I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation,” Biden said today. He called his listeners back to President Abraham Lincoln’s defense of democracy at Gettysburg when he said: “As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it’s time to look to the future, not the past—to a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure, to a future that honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called their ‘last full measure of devotion.’”