In White House, Biden Pushes Back on Afghanistan

Could Washington's highest-ranking dove alter the course of the war?

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There aren't many forces pulling the White House to the left on the war in Afghanistan. Conventional thinking is currently focused on a strong, boots-on-the-ground strategy of nation-building and counterinsurgency that would fight the Taliban as well as al Qaeda. Meanwhile, General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has called for an even more aggressive approach. But Vice President Joe Biden, whose dove-ish views stand in contrast to official White House policy, is taking an increasingly public stand for a more constrained policy of pure counter-terrorism: focus on al Qaeda, avoid getting mired in nation-building, and train Afghan troops so Americans can leave. His influence as the highest-ranking liberal dove in Washington is growing, but he remains in the minority. Will Biden succeed in altering the thinking of President Obama and Washington's hawkish orthodoxy on Afghanistan?

  • America's Dove in the White House The New York Times's Peter Baker explores Biden's role as "in-house pessimist" on the war. "For Mr. Biden, a longtime senator who prided himself on his experience in foreign relations, the role represents an evolution in his own thinking, a shift from his days as a liberal hawk advocating for American involvement in Afghanistan. Month by month, year by year, the story of Mr. Biden's disenchantment with the Afghan government, and by extension with the engagement there, mirrors America's slow but steady turn against the war, with just 37 percent supporting more troops in last week's CBS News poll," Baker wrote. "Beyond Mr. Biden's strategic concerns, some who participated in administration deliberations earlier this year said he was keenly aware that the country, and particularly his party's liberal base, was growing tired of the war and might not accept many more years of extensive American commitment."

  • Biden Gathering High-Level Support In a Newsweek cover story, Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas say Biden, once the lone voice against greater involvement, has brought around important officials. "His persistence and truth telling have paid off, and he's found a role for himself. On Afghanistan in particular, the vice president's once lonesome position now has high-level support. The president himself seems to be looking for a middle way--not pulling out of Afghanistan, but at the same time not sending in the more than 40,000 troops requested by the U.S. ground commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal," they write, arguing that Biden is more hawkish than we might think. "Biden has been incorrectly characterized as a dove who wants to pull out of Afghanistan. In fact, according to his 'Counterterrorism-Plus' paper, he wants to maintain a large troop presence. He also favors a greater emphasis on training Afghan troops--and defending Kabul and Kandahar--than on chasing the Taliban around the countryside, and he wants more diplomatic efforts to try to peel away those Taliban who can be bought with money or other inducements (like political power)."
  • What Made Biden So Skeptical The New Republic's Michael Crowley notes that Biden was once far more hawkish. "His newfound skepticism is not only a story about dashed hopes in Afghanistan. It is also a story of how a leading liberal hawk found realism in the Hindu Kush," Crowley writes. "People familiar with Biden's shift in thinking say it has many roots. But none is more apparent or vivid than his disillusionment with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai." Crowley says that Biden, once a friendly support of Karzai, gradually turned against him over government corruption. "Reiterating his prior complaints about corruption, Biden warned Karzai that the Bush administration's kid-glove treatment was over; the new team would demand more of him. Biden's revised view of Karzai was pivotal. Whereas he had once felt that, with sufficient U.S. support, Afghanistan could be stabilized, now he wasn't so sure."

  • Conservative Hawks Find Opponent in Biden The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb derides Biden's strategy, as many conservatives have done since, signaling Biden's arrival as the leading representative of liberal Afghan plans. "The counterterrorism approach has been derided as the 'Biden Plan' -- because Biden's support of the counterterrorism approach is itself such a damning indictment of the plan," he writes. "Of course, it's all to the good of the country and the war effort that the White House has killed the counterterrorism approach by labeling it the Biden Plan, but if I were a supporter of that approach, as so many on the left are, I would be furious that the White House had made a fool out of me by allowing Biden to be cast as the plan's most prominent supporter."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.