With Biden's withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan, America's longest war is ending: 5 Things podcast

·19 min read

On today's episode of the 5 Things podcast: Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have hung over the US and the world for nearly two decades — taking hundreds of thousands of lives, costing taxpayer money and leaving America war-weary.

Now, Biden's full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and decision to end combat missions in Iraq marks an end to the post-9/11 era and represents a renewed focus on combatting threats from China.

We're mapping out Biden's skepticism toward our engagement in the Middle East and remembering the human life our wars have cost — Afghan, Iraqi and American lives and those touched by the far-flung effects of our "forever wars."

USA TODAY White House correspondent Courtney Subramanian, along with foreign policy reporter Deirdre Shesgreen and Pentagon correspondent Tom Vanden Brook explain what to keep in mind as US troops leave these two countries: What have these wars costs us? What happens if the Taliban regains control in Afghanistan?

Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

Claire Thornton:

Hey, there. I'm Claire Thornton, and this is Five Things. It's Sunday, August 1st. These Sunday episodes are special. We're bringing you more from in-depth stories you may have already heard.

Claire Thornton:

America's longest war is about to come to an end. Earlier this year, President Biden said all U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by September. We've been deployed to Afghanistan for nearly 20 years. The Biden administration also announced we're going to stop combat missions in Iraq by the end of this year. Shifting focus away from Afghanistan and Iraq is shaping up to be a signature aspect of the Biden administration's foreign policy. We've been through a lot as a country because of our involvement in these wars for the past two decades.

Claire Thornton:

Over 7,000 U.S. service members have been killed in post 9/11 war operations. Far more civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of thousands, have died during that time because of military actions. Ending these wars is a long time coming. Still, similar threats remain in parts of Afghanistan and Iraq all these years later. Here to discuss is Courtney Subramanian USA Today White House Correspondent and our Pentagon reporter Tom Vanden Brook and foreign policy reporter Deirdre Shesgreen. Thank you all so much for being here.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

Good to be here.

Courtney Subramanian:

Happy to be here.

Claire Thornton:

Here's a quote from Biden I like from this April. He said, "I'm now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth president." Courtney, could you walk us through Biden's initial support for these wars and how his support has waned over the past years?

Courtney Subramanian:

Yeah. Well, I'll start with Afghanistan. Biden has never hid the fact that he thought we should pull out of Afghanistan. He's long argued the U.S. mission should squarely be focused on dismantling Al-Qaeda and getting Osama bin Laden two objectives he said when he announced the full withdrawal that he said the U.S. had achieved. As vice president, he was one of the most vocal critics of further escalation in Afghanistan. He opposed Obama's decision to surge troops there in 2009.

Courtney Subramanian:

I think at one point he was referred to as Obama's in-house pessimist on Afghanistan. Other presidents have agreed with his thinking, but have never been able to fully pull out. Trump also talked about bringing an end to America's endless wars. He struck a deal with the Taliban to pull all U.S. troops. In February 2020, he struck that deal, and that's a deal the Biden administration has said they're honoring. Trump had set a May 1st, 2021 deadline, which Biden missed.

Courtney Subramanian:

But that decision by the Trump administration sort of gave Biden some political cover and ease some of that political pressure that other presidents faced with the decision to withdraw. But the public is with him on this. Polls show a strong majority of Americans support withdrawing troops. But I think the decision obviously has some implications that we've seen some Republicans and some of his critics call out politically, if the Taliban do topple the Afghan government, that sort of leaves the fate of Afghan women and children in peril.

Courtney Subramanian:

He understands that. He understands that this decision comes with obvious risks, but it's something that for a long time he has truly believed it was time to leave. The environment that we're in now, both at home and abroad, has given him the right conditions to finally make this decision. He has a long history with Iraq. As a Senator and later as a vice president, he developed relationships with the country's political leaders. He studied their tribal politics and rivalries.

Courtney Subramanian:

When he was vice president, he was assigned the Iraq portfolio and his son Bo was serving there at the time with the Delaware National Guard. So that gave him sort of the vantage point of military families that not every politician has. By the time he visited there in November 2011, he had been there seven times as vice president, and I think it was like his 16th across his career, but he hasn't always opposed intervention there.

Courtney Subramanian:

He did vote to authorize military force there in 2002 he was critical of the Bush administration, but he did support the decision to invade. I think it's important to remember that his announcement this week is less of a dramatic shift and more of a reflection of what's actually happening on the ground there, and that's that U.S. forces are no longer fighting on behalf of Iraqi forces. They'll continue to play a supporting role, and that's what Biden said they'll do.

Courtney Subramanian:

He hasn't said whether he'll draw down the 2,500 troops that will remain there, but reassign them to help with training and advising and intelligence sharing. It's important to remember with Iraq, I think he is probably haunted by the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, only they had to send troops back in 2014 in response to ISIS. I think part of that decision probably reflects that era of foreign policy and the consequences of that decision.

Claire Thornton:

You said that in Afghanistan, women and children are going to be at more risk once we pull troops from that country. The Taliban is the strongest it's been since 2001. For listeners, the Taliban is a political and Islamist movement in Afghanistan, and they're also a military organization. They've been causing conflict within the country, and the Taliban government also harbored Al-Qaeda militants involved in planning the 9/11 attacks.

Claire Thornton:

Tom, how worried are you that the Taliban could regain control in Afghanistan after this year? From everything I've learned, it seems really procure.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

Yeah, Claire. I think it's a given that they're going to have some great measure of power in Afghanistan once... Well, they're working on some sort of peace deal and power sharing agreement, but they're going to take as much influence and power as they can, and they probably will be able to. They've already regained control of more than half of the districts in Afghanistan. They've overrun key strategic border crossings with Pakistan.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

It's a given that they're going to have some measure, perhaps the majority of the power in the Afghan government in the coming months. Is that a concern? It would certainly be a concern if you're an educated person in Afghanistan. Women, children before they were toppled in 2001, they had a very repressive regime that didn't allow women and girls to go to school. I think the thought now is there... Well, the hope, I think, is that they're going to be a little less repressive than they had been, but there's no guarantee of that.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

I mean, they will have the high hand when it comes to ruling the country in a very short time. It looks like the Afghan security forces are folding. They don't fight. I've talked to senior defense officials who say whatever resistance they put up is usually by their elite forces, their special forces, which are a smaller number. But the rest of the 300,000 plus Afghan soldiers that we've spent billions training are not putting up a fight. It looks fairly grim right there right now.

Claire Thornton:

In terms of how far we've come there in Afghanistan, or how far we haven't come, what's been the result of our engagement there? How far have we come since that war started? What sacrifices have we made?

Tom Vanden Brrook:

Well, lots of sacrifices obviously, and the sacrifices are certainly great on the U.S. side, but much more so for Afghan civilians. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of died. Certainly at least hundreds of thousands have been maimed or affected in some way. Civilian casualties are way up again. Now this year. The Taliban is not a particularly kind force. They don't pay attention to Geneva Rules of Convention when it comes to warfare. We're now conducting airstrikes again in support of the Afghan forces that are besieged.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

But when you do that, you end up killing a lot of people who are civilians and bystanders. There's been a lot of sacrifice. There have been gains though. I mean, their life expectancy is up considerably since in the 20 years that we've been there. Literacy rate is up. Women and children have benefited greatly. It's not as though it's been a total failure on our part to help the Afghan people.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

But at this point, we've decided that the military mission no longer furthers U.S. national security interests to the extent that we need to have a large force there on the ground. After you've spent literally tens of billions of dollars training and equipping the Afghan forces, Biden feels it's time for them to give it a shot. As Courtney pointed out, this was a deal that was negotiated by former President Trump. We'll see what happens, but all signs right now are not very good.

Claire Thornton:

Anyone else want to weigh in?

Deirdre Shesgreen:

I would just say that all the gains that Tom mentioned are at risk if the Taliban do gain control of the country again. There is a question also of whether there will be a resurgence. I mean, that's the big criticism of both Trump's original deal with the Taliban and Biden's following through on it. If the Taliban allows Al-Qaeda to regain strength, then will the U.S. have to go back in?

Deirdre Shesgreen:

Biden has said that the U.S. will continue to provide over the horizon support for the Afghan security forces, which essentially means helping Afghan security forces from U.S. bases outside the country, but there's a real question about whether that's logistically feasible and how U.S. would really be able to do that.

Claire Thornton:

Yeah. Where would those bases be outside Afghanistan?

Tom Vanden Brrook:

Well, they used Al Udeid and Qatar to fly missions with B-1 bombers, and they're doing airstrikes right now presumably from Al Udeid, but also from carriers in the Arabian Gulf. We can still perform some missions that way, but you don't have the intelligence on the ground to tell you who you're hitting precisely, or you're banking on the Afghan security forces to tell you you're hitting the right people in the right targets. And that's a very dicey proposition. And often what ends up happening is you end up killing civilians. It's a bad solution to an even worse problem.

Claire Thornton:

Our invasion of Iraq had no connection to the 9/11 attacks. Deirdre, what sacrifices have Iraqis made since we invaded there in 2003?

Deirdre Shesgreen:

The U.S. war in Iraq has been devastating in terms of the death toll and the chaos and the instability. Researchers at Brown University who specialize in trying to tally the costs of war say that it's very difficult to know for sure how many Iraqis were killed, but they say that between 180,000 and 200,000 civilians have died in direct war-related violence as a result of the U.S. invasion. And then several times more have died from indirect causes, for example, damage to the food system, the healthcare system, clean drinking, water illness, mountain malnutrition.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

All these tangential, but severe consequences of the war. The U.S. occupation also led to instability in Iraq that included a rise in corruption and a very weak government that exists still today. I will pause and say, of course, no one would argue that Saddam Hussein, the deposed and now dead former leader of Iraq, was a good person. He led a very repressive regime. I just want to make that clear, but the U.S. occupation of Iraq had really far-reaching consequences.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

And we also know that it eventually led to the rise of sectarian politics and the rise of the Islamic State, which controlled large parts of Iraq starting in 2014 and remains a problem today, much less of a problem, but still a concern for Iraq and for the U.S. and other countries.

Claire Thornton:

Anyone else want to weigh in? Maybe we could talk about how with ISIS's rise, millions of people were displaced from Syria.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

Sure. I'll talk about that a little bit. I was actually in Baghdad in 2011 when they wrapped up the combat mission for the last time. And the thought was that we'd spent, as we had in Afghanistan, a lot of money to support security forces there, and that they would be capable of handling internal security, but that turned out to be a bad miscalculation. And it wasn't long before ISIS, which basically had been Al-Qaeda in Iraq before that, resurged across that region.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

And then we had to put together a coalition quickly in order to keep Baghdad from falling, because ISIS rolled through Ramadi and other provincial capitals in Iraq very quickly and threatened Baghdad. We put together a coalition that started airstrikes in 2014 after a sect of Iraqis in Northern Iraq, the Yazidis, were threatened with genocide by ISIS. That's what spurred us to go back in there. Spent a lot of money on that again and a lot of civilians were killed again in airstrikes.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

These things have definite costs, both for us and for the people on the ground, when the wrong decisions are made.

Claire Thornton:

Yeah. Biden's shift away from Afghanistan and Iraq. It's going to become a pillar of his foreign policy. Experts say he is definitely going to focus on China instead going forward. How do you think he might do that, shift our military focus toward China?

Tom Vanden Brrook:

I'll take a quick whack at it and let you guys go forward too. Well, you've already seen it. I mean, we've already started to strike targets more frequently in Africa and militant groups like Al-Shabaab. That's what they talk about when they're talking about the shift away from Afghanistan and Iraq, that the threat from extremists has metastasized, as they would say, and shown up in other countries around the globe. You see them in Africa. There are some in Southeast Asia as well.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

The reason for leaving Afghanistan primarily is that the threat is still there to an extent, but not as much as it is elsewhere. And then you see the idea that we would also shift focus to China because China is continuing to exercise its muscles around the globe actually. You've got them in Africa, in Djibouti. You have them throughout Asia. The idea that they want to turn the South China Sea a key shipping area for the entire world into their sphere of influence. We continue to sail ships through there and run into provocations with the Chinese Navy.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

That's where the principal effort and concern for the Pentagon is, is the rise of China's military and confronting them around the globe.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

I'll just wheel in to say that there's two forces driving Biden's desire to get out of these so-called endless wars. One is domestic politics. The American public is tired of this, and they feel like the costs have been exorbitant in terms of U.S. taxpayer dollars and U.S. lives, and they want investment at home. Then the second thing is what you've mentioned in terms of this desire to pivot to China. That is not just a military question.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

In fact, I would say that, of course, while there is concern of a military confrontation with China, the dominant concern among Biden's foreign policy advisors is that China poses more of an economic threat and a political threat with its anti-democratic sort of authoritarian moves in Hong Kong, for example, and its desire to sort of spread its authoritarian form of government. Biden argues that there's this sort of looming conflict between democracy and authoritarianism and that China is driving it.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

It's a much more complex discussion than just a military debate or a matter of redeploying American forces to a new theater, because that's not actually what's happening. It's a matter of confronting China economically, politically, and also preparing for different kinds of warfare like cyber. We've seen both China and Russia mount these cyber attacks that are devastating and could become or already have become this new front. It's a very different conversation I think.

Courtney Subramanian:

Just to kind of build on what Deirdre saying, actually Biden made his first visit to the ODNI, spoke to the intelligence community, and during his remarks said something to the effect of the next shooting war that we'll be involved in will be a result of cyber warfare.

Claire Thornton:

Wow!

Courtney Subramanian:

Because he really does believe that that is one of the biggest threats facing the country aside from the military focus, but also like an economic focus. I think it really reflects a worldview that his national security advisor Jake Sullivan has really pushed, and that is national security and foreign policy should play a proactive role in the domestic economic policy debate. Because his thought is that the two should be linked because foreign policy should focus on what it will take to enhance U.S. competitiveness, both at home and abroad.

Courtney Subramanian:

We've seen that throughout Biden's agenda. It really reflects that when he met with foreign leaders in Europe in his first trip, urging them to take a tough line on China. He's launched a government wide initiative, this buy American initiative, which is like federal procurement to support American manufacturing. This focus on China, he's really trying to thread the needle throughout his entire agenda, and I think this is a reflection of that.

Claire Thornton:

Thank you. Any closing thoughts from you all?

Courtney Subramanian:

I mean, I'll just say that I think that this is a deliberate to move the U.S. beyond the post 9/11 scope, and I think these decisions really reflect Biden's worldview that we've achieved the missions that we set out to accomplish with these wars. Specifically with this country being very war wary and with an economic crisis at home coming out of a pandemic, this was very much a deliberate move to move beyond the shadow of 9/11, which has dictated our foreign policy for so long.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

I'll just say, I agree with everything Courtney and Deirdre have said. The problem, of course, is that events often dictate what we have to do. Obama famously said he was pivoting to Asia and he was never able to really do it. Whenever problems arise in the Middle East, there's typically only one country that gets deeply, deeply involved, and it's us. If something else happens there in a catastrophic way, we'll almost inexorably be drawn back in.

Claire Thornton:

Yeah, I think so too.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

We've seen that already with the war between Israel and Hamas. The Biden administration made it pretty clear. They did not want to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then events forced them to dive in. Like Tom said, as much as they might want to move on, they may not be able to.

Claire Thornton:

Well, let's leave it at that. Tom, Courtney, Deirdre, thank you all so much for being here.

Tom Vanden Brrook:

Thanks.

Deirdre Shesgreen:

Thank you.

Claire Thornton:

You can get more from Courtney, Tom, and Deirdre at usatoday.com. Look out for their coverage of the End Of Our War in Afghanistan out later this summer, if you liked this episode of Five Things, write us a review on Apple Podcasts, letting us know what your favorite part was. When you write us a review, we'll give you a shout out on the show. Thanks for listening. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with Five Things You Need to Know for Monday, and I'm Claire Thornton. I'll see you next Sunday. Catch you later.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal ends our longest war. Here's what to know.

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