Speaking at the Pentagon on Wednesday, President Biden said he will work with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to bring a “responsible end” to US wars.
“I will work with Secretary Austin and leaders around the world to bring a responsible end — a responsible end to wars that have dragged on for far too long, while continuing to ensure that terrorist threats cannot endanger the security of the American people.”
Biden’s comments come as he has an opportunity to end the almost 20-year-old war in Afghanistan. The US-Taliban peace deal signed in February 2020 paved the way for a May 1st withdrawal. While the administration hasn’t made an official announcement, all signs indicate that US troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the deadline.
Biden’s language of bringing a “responsible” end to wars could mean he doesn’t think now is the right time to leave Afghanistan. Last week, a congressionally mandated report was released that warned against the May 1st withdrawal. The study repeated the usual talking points hawks use to justify staying in Afghanistan. It said the withdrawal would cause a civil war, even though fighting is raging now between the Taliban and the US-backed government. The only thing keeping US troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1st would accomplish is more US casualties.
February 8th marked the first full year since the war started that no US troops died in combat in Afghanistan. That is because the Taliban stopped attacking US forces as per the deal signed last year. But the Taliban has vowed to again turn their weapons on the US if Washington doesn’t fulfill its end of the deal and leave the country.
As a candidate, President Biden said he could not promise a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. In an interview with Stars and Stripes in September, he said the US should keep a maximum of “1,500 to 2,000” troops in these countries as counterterrorism forces.
In Afghanistan, there are currently 2,500 US troops, although there are also over 18,000 Pentagon contractors in the country. In Iraq, there are also 2,500 troops. Over in Syria, estimates put the number of US soldiers at somewhere between 500 and 1,000.
One war Biden does seem keen to end is the US-backed Saudi-led war in Yemen. Although he announced he was ending US support for Saudi Arabia’s “offensive” operations in Yemen and suspended some bomb sales to the Saudis, questions remain over other aspects of the war, like the blockade. The administration has also made it clear that this does not mean an end to the US war against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
In his speech on Wednesday, Biden announced a new Pentagon task force that will review the US military’s China policy, an area that seems to be the focus of the new administration. The review is being led by Ely Ratner, a China hawk who penned an op-ed in September that said President Trump was “weak” on Beijing. The task force will look at things like troop numbers in Asia, intelligence, and US alliances in the region. US warships have been sailing near China’s coast with increasing frequency in the first few weeks of Biden’s presidency.
The Biden administration is also escalating tensions with Moscow, although the US and Russia did reach an agreement to extend New START, the vital nuclear treaty. Despite the quick diplomatic victory, Biden officials have been threatening new sanctions on Russia. Militarily, the US is increasing activity in the Black Sea and in the Arctic to put pressure on Moscow.
With the US military increasingly focused on China and Russia, the current troop numbers in the Middle East could be the norm for a while, barring any escalations or surprise withdrawals.