Biden: The New Rumsfeld

With the administration split on Afghanistan, liberals like Joe Biden support a drawdown and shun nation building. Peter Beinart asks: Wasn’t that the Rumsfeld view in 2002?

10.19.09 7:02 AM ET

In January 2002, soon after America overthrew the Taliban, then-Senator Joseph Biden traveled to a ramshackle school in Kabul. As his tour was ending, a girl stood up. “You cannot leave. They will not deny me learning to read. I will read and I will be a doctor like my mother. I will. America must stay.”

The conversation haunted Biden. When he returned to Washington, he pushed for more money for Afghan schools, and more U.S. troops. But he got nowhere. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld loathed nation building, which he believed bred dependence. Afghanistan’s new president, Hamid Karzai, begged Rumsfeld to let U.S. troops participate in the tiny international peacekeeping force established after the Taliban’s fall, so Afghanistan’s new government could expand its writ beyond Kabul. “You think I am president, but I am not,” Karzai pleaded, noting that local warlords were refusing to hand over customs revenue. But Karzai failed, too. Opposition to nation building, after all, was a core tenet of post-cold war Republican foreign policy. “Most of the advisors around the president,” State Department official Richard Haass would later note, “held out little hope that Afghanistan could ever be made into something much better.” Biden was appalled. Bush officials, he told reporters, “have already given up the ghost in Afghanistan. They’ve basically turned it over to the warlords.”

Biden and other anti-surge liberals speak as if America is losing in Afghanistan because Afghanistan is irredeemable, when the real reason America is losing is because—as Biden himself once screamed—America hasn’t really tried.

History plays nasty jokes. In 2002, to be a foreign policy liberal was to believe in nation building: to believe that when the United States bombed another country, America had a responsibility to help rebuild it afterwards. Today, however, it is mostly conservatives—buoyed by the apparent success of the surge in Iraq--who demand that America commit to nation building in Afghanistan. And it is mostly liberals like Biden who hold “out little hope that Afghanistan could ever be made into something much better.” In our ADD-political culture, barely anyone seems to notice that the two parties have switched sides.

Biden has every right to change his mind, and it’s understandable that he’s more pessimistic about Afghanistan today than he was in 2002. But I think he’s forgotten what he once knew. He and other anti-surge liberals speak as if America is losing in Afghanistan because Afghanistan is irredeemable, when the real reason America is losing is because—as Biden himself once screamed—America hasn’t really tried.

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When anti-surge liberals talk about Afghanistan today, they often lapse into clichés about how the prickly Afghans hate all foreign occupiers. But for many years after the Taliban was overthrown, Afghans adored their foreign occupiers. As recently as 2006, two-thirds of Afghans told pollsters that they approved of Western forces in their country and almost 90 percent approved of the Taliban’s overthrow. Those numbers have dropped in recent years, such that now less than 40 percent of Afghans support NATO’s presence. But significantly, the Afghans who like NATO best are the ones who feel that NATO’s presence in their area is strongest, which suggests that what Afghans resent is not Western occupation, but ineffective Western occupation. To listen to the press, you’d think that Afghans prefer the Taliban to the United States. In fact, even as pro-American sentiment has faded, the U.S. remains far more popular than the Taliban, whose approval ratings don’t exceed single digits.

In addition to pessimism about Afghanistan itself, the Biden crowd expresses deep pessimism about Hamid Karzai, whom they dismiss as a pawn of corrupt, illiberal warlords. But as Biden himself once noted, Karzai embraced the warlords because he had neither an Afghan army nor an international military force with the muscle to extend his reach into the countryside. Until 2007, in fact, the US made barely any effort to train the Afghan army. As late as 2008, America had one soldier in Afghanistan for every six it had in Iraq. And even today, the Afghan military remains only one-fourth as large as Iraq’s, even though Afghanistan is a larger, more populous country.

Sure, Karzai’s no saint. But neither is Nuri al-Maliki. In fact, Maliki’s approval rating before the Iraq surge was less than 30 percent, far below Karzai’s today. Maliki didn’t become a vigorous leader because he had a personality transplant; he became a vigorous leader because he had larger, more effective military forces at his disposal. If Karzai had that, he could deal with the warlords from a position of strength.

None of this is to say that the situation in Afghanistan is promising. But it’s not bad enough to do what Biden wants: which is to “give up the ghost.” Biden has reportedly argued that the American people will not support a greater commitment to Afghanistan. But the truth is closer to the reverse: They will not support the current U.S. commitment to Afghanistan because—as study after study shows—the American people will only tolerate casualties if they feel there is a reasonable chance of victory. Sticking with the current force levels when America’s commander on the ground has basically conceded that they cannot reverse the Taliban’s momentum will set in motion a political dynamic that leads to American withdrawal and American defeat.

And what will that mean for Biden’s young friend? Karzai is no moral paragon. His henchmen have stuffed ballot boxes, and he has cut deals at Afghan women’s expense, largely to appease the warlords who have him by the throat. But still: two million Afghan girls are in school. When the Taliban ruled, it was illegal for girls to learn and virtually illegal for women to work. Men were instructed to paint the windows of their homes so that passersby could not see the women inside.

The Taliban haven’t changed. Last year, men on motorcycles used water pistols to squirt acid in the faces of girls going to school. This year, the Taliban have taken to spraying poison in the courtyards of girls schools. What Biden is essentially proposing is to concede more and more of Afghanistan to such people while relying more heavily on U.S. air power to kill Al Qaeda terrorists. Since air strikes are far more likely to kill innocent civilians than are U.S GIs, Biden’s vision is—for Afghan women in particular—a vision of hell. On the ground, you live in beast-like submission, and from the air, chunks of your village are periodically set aflame.

Somewhere, Donald Rumsfeld is chuckling.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.