September 21, 2021

Biden Defends Ending “Forever War” in Afghanistan & Criticizes Using War as Tool for Nation-Building

9 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at Afghanistan. On Tuesday, President Biden forcefully defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden described the U.S. pullout as a, quote, “extraordinary success,” noting the U.S helped over 120,000 people flee Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power two-and-a-half weeks ago. He called for a new era in U.S. foreign policy.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me, there are two that are paramount. First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we’ll never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America. This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. …

When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. And today, I have honored that commitment. It was time to be honest with the American people again. We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan. After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.

After more than $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan, a cost that researchers at Brown University estimated would be over $300 million a day for 20 years in Afghanistan — for two decades — yes, the American people should hear this: $300 million a day for two decades. If you take the number of $1 trillion, as many say, that’s still $150 million a day for two decades. And what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities? I refused to continue in a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people.

And most of all, after 800,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan — I’ve traveled that whole country — brave and honorable service; after 20,744 American servicemen and women injured, and the loss of 2,461 American personnel, including 13 lives lost just this week, I refused to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan. We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden, speaking on Tuesday.
We are joined today by Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, author of many books, including Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism.
Phyllis, if you can respond to President Biden’s address, talking about ending this “forever war” and stopping a “forever exit”?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Amy, I think that there were a number of things that President Biden said in his speech that were both true and important, the most important of which was that it was right and important to get out. He didn’t say, of course, that it was wrong to have gone in in the first place, in a war that was illegal, that was not authorized by the United Nations or self-defense, that violated international law, that justified and normalized terrorism across the understanding of this country, but it was right to get out. The huge problems in terms of how they got out, how the withdrawal happened, he acknowledged only barely, which is a huge problem. But I think that keeping the focus on the significance of ending the war was very important, particularly because he was willing to acknowledge and really focus on the economic cost, as well as the human cost. Those figures from Brown University, which my IPS colleagues at the National Priorities Project have been using for years, we’ve struggled to get those into national consciousness. So, having that being said by the president twice, that it’s $300 million a day — $2 trillion is more than anybody can even imagine, how much money was wasted on that war. So that was very important.
He implied that this was the end of the global war on terror. I think that was something that is clearly not true. The U.S. is still waging war in a host of other countries, including Iraq, for whose war the Afghanistan War was really initiated in the first place. It raises the question of whether his own view is that the U.S. war policy is shifting away from wars against so-called terrorism towards potential wars with China, perhaps Russia. The rise of the new Cold War tensions with China are very, very serious. He didn’t reflect on that in this speech.
But again, it was very important that he spoke of the legitimacy and the significance of pulling out. I think we should be clear: There’s a lot of talk — and I think it’s very justified — about Afghans feeling abandoned by the United States because of the nature of this chaotic and insufficient withdrawal. And all of that is true. I think what’s also true is that the United States abandoned the people of Afghanistan long before this withdrawal. They abandoned the people of Afghanistan when they occupied their country, when they imposed a government that was based on U.S. understandings of what a government should look like and had nothing to do with the history, with the political culture of Afghans themselves. They abandoned women, when, after 20 years of U.S. war and occupation, Afghanistan is still number one in infant mortality in the whole world, meaning it’s the worst place in the world for a woman to give birth and have her child live to her first birthday. You know, this is what abandonment of women looks like.
So, I think that we need to be talking about a new era indeed. We need a new era of refugee protection. We need a new era of turning away from spending 53 cents of every discretionary federal dollar directly on the military. We need to move away from all of that. We need to move away from any notion that a war waged for vengeance — and we should be clear: This was never about justice. This was never about bringing the perpetrators to justice. This was about vengeance and about preparing the people of this country for going to war in a much more dramatic and urgent and, in fact, worse way, in many ways, in Afghanistan [sic] just two years later.
AMY GOODMAN: Iraq.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: So, I think — sorry, in Iraq, just later. But just one other point I —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Phyllis, I wanted to ask you about the refugee issue and the press coverage of the plight of those trying to get out, the civilians trying — the Afghans trying to get out of the country in the last few weeks. It seems to me there’s enormous hypocrisy involved in this kind of coverage. First of all, no retreat from a lost war is going to be orderly and well managed. But the issue of refugees, there have been an estimated, by the United Nations, over 6 million refugees from Afghanistan: about three-and-a-half million internally displaced and another 2.6 million who are outside of Afghanistan in other countries. And of those, the United States has only taken in 20,000 over the last 20 years. And we have countries like Pakistan, has 1.4 million Afghan refugees; Iran, 780,000 Afghan refugees; even Germany, 180,000. And the United States, which started the war, prosecuted the war and maintained the occupation, has so far has only taken in 20,000 refugees. So this refugee problem is not a new one; it’s just now, only now, being focused on by the press.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s absolutely right. It’s not only just being focused on by the press. It’s also just being focused on by the government, by a whole host of forces across this country. And you’re absolutely right, Juan: This is enormous levels of hypocrisy. The hypocrisy in this war, it’s hard to measure how far it goes. But certainly on the question of refugees, that suddenly now the refugees that are coming out are the refugees who are the people who did, in many ways, benefit — women, in particular, did benefit, if they lived in Kabul. They benefited in certain ways, in a temporary sense, from access to education, healthcare and jobs, that were not available before. That is real. And the U.S. did make promises that it should have kept.
The way this withdrawal was carried out was not just disorganized. It was badly planned. It was terribly done, in my view. But that doesn’t go to the question of the hypocrisy on what was the U.S. obligation to those refugees, to the IDPs, to the countries, like Pakistan and Iran, that were hosting, for years, millions of refugees. Iran at one point had two-and-a-half million refugees. Many have left. Some have gone back.
We are hearing now from, for example, Mahbooba Seraj, the head of the Afghan Women’s Network, who said yesterday she felt an absolute sense of relief seeing the last U.S. forces leaving, as a woman. And she said, “We are now able to figure out what we’re going to do in this new era.”
I think that we, in this country, have an enormous debt not only to the refugees that are coming out this month, but to the people of Afghanistan, whose country we have so devastated, where we have killed tens of thousands of their citizens. So, we owe a debt of reparations. We owe compensation. We don’t owe continued drone strikes. We don’t owe continued attacks from over the horizon, something that is guaranteed to maintain a level of violence and extend the cycles of violence that we have seen in these last 20 years. But certainly, the press should be — in every one of these articles, should be focusing on the relationship of all of the refugees, the IDPs, those that are seeking some kind of protected status, asylum, in ways that this country has not been willing to provide.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to wrap in one minute, but I wanted to get your comment on President Biden referencing China twice during his speech. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And here’s a critical thing to understand: The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges, on multiple fronts, with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation. … And there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, clearly, the United States is concerned about China and Russia, as he says, China and Russia stepping into the breach in a different way as the U.S. pulls out soldiers. And just to be clear, there’s an army there of counterintelligence, of mercenaries. That is not over, so the forever war is not exactly over. But what about China and Russia, Phyllis?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that why we saw in 20 years of war in Afghanistan, it proved once again that there is no military solution to terrorism. If our relationship with China and Russia can be based on competing for who can provide the most and the best aid and assistance to the country of Afghanistan, that has been so devastated by outside powers, led by the United States, for so many years — not just this 20 years, but for 20 years before that — that would be a victory, I think, for those of us who fought against this war for 20 years. If we can see a competition between Russia and China and the U.S. for who can provide the most vaccines, instead of what the U.S. is doing right now, preventing the IMF from giving Afghanistan $450 million that was pledged for vaccines and for COVID care, that would be a great thing. That’s the kind of competition we should have, that wealthy countries are competing with each other to see who can provide the best and the most effective aid to those in need.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Coming up, we speak with an Afghan doctor who just fled Kabul with his wife and four children, went to Qatar and Germany, eventually came back home to Virginia. We’ll hear his story.