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Biden no longer a lone voice on Afghanistan

In a shift from his days as a liberal hawk, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is President Obama’s in-house pessimist on Afghanistan.
Image: Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden has been a strong voice against further escalation of American forces in Afghanistan and the leading doubter of the president’s strategy.J. Scott Applewhite / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

A few hours after getting off a plane from America’s war zones, Joseph R. Biden Jr. slipped into a chair, shook off his jet lag and reflected on what he had seen. The situation in Iraq, he said, was much improved. In Pakistan, he said he saw encouraging signs.

Then he came to Afghanistan and shook his head.

“It has deteriorated significantly,” he said. “It’s going to be a very heavy lift.”

That was six days before Mr. Biden was sworn in as vice president in January, and just after he had met with President-elect Barack Obama, who had sent him on the fact-finding mission to figure out just what the new administration was inheriting. Mr. Biden’s assessment was even grimmer during his private meeting with Mr. Obama, according to officials.

From the moment they took office, Mr. Biden has been Mr. Obama’s in-house pessimist on Afghanistan, the strongest voice against further escalation of American forces there and the leading doubter of the president’s strategy. It was a role that may have been lonely at first, but has attracted more company inside the White House as Mr. Obama rethinks the strategy he unveiled just seven months ago.

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.

“He came to question some of the assumptions and began asking questions about whether there might be other approaches that might get you as good or better results at lower cost,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been consulted by Mr. Biden on the matter.

Hunting Al Qaeda vs. protecting Afghans
Mr. Biden does not favor abandoning Afghanistan, but his approach would reject the additional troops sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and leave the American force in Afghanistan roughly the same, 68,000 troops. Rather than emphasize protecting the Afghan population, he would accelerate training of Afghans to take over the fight while hunting Al Qaeda in Pakistan using drones and special forces. His view has caught on with many liberals in his party.

“The vice president is asking great questions and he understands this issue very, very deeply,” said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Biden’s successor as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “He’s been there many times. He knows the issues and the personalities very well. He’s set out a good analysis.”

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.

“I think a big part of it is, the vice president’s reading of the Democratic Party is this is not sustainable,” said Bruce O. Riedel, who led the administration’s review this year. “That’s a part of the process that’s a legitimate question for a president — if I do this, can I sustain it with political support at home? That was the argument the vice president was making back in the winter.”

Critics note past misjudgments
But Mr. Riedel said the public could be persuaded to stick by the war with a well-articulated argument by the president. And others, more harshly, argue that Mr. Biden’s judgment on foreign policy has often been off base.

They point out that he voted against the successful Persian Gulf war of 1991, voted for the Iraq invasion of 2003, proposed dividing Iraq into three sections in 2006 and opposed the additional troops credited by many with turning Iraq around in 2007.

“When was the last time Biden was right about anything?” Thomas E. Ricks, a military writer, wrote in a blog on Sept. 24. Mr. Ricks is affiliated with the Center for a New American Security, a research organization founded by Democrats.

Mr. Biden's office rejects that criticism.

"From nuclear arms control to ending ethnic cleaning in the Balkans to confronting the threat of terrorism, the vice president has not only been right on many of the toughest questions of U.S. foreign policy over the past 30 years, he has been consistently ahead of the curve," said Jay Carney, his communications director.

Biden's journey
Mr. Biden’s journey on the American war in Afghanistan began where it did for many political leaders. He strongly supported President George W. Bush’s decision to topple the Taliban after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after traveling there in January 2002 was convinced that half-measures were not enough.

When the United States invaded Iraq, Mr. Biden’s attention shifted, but he eventually expressed concern that attention was being diverted from Afghanistan and refocused on what Democrats were calling “the good war” as he opened his campaign for president.

In January 2007, he opposed Mr. Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq by arguing that “if we’re going to surge anywhere,” then it “should be Afghanistan.” In August of that year, when Mr. Obama, too, proposed more troops for Afghanistan, Mr. Biden’s camp responded with a statement calling him a “Johnny-come-lately” and suggesting that it was “a little disingenuous” of Mr. Obama.

But by the time Mr. Biden traveled to Afghanistan again in February 2008, he was rethinking his views, according to people close to him. He had grown sour on President Hamid Karzai and the Kabul government’s pervasive corruption. During a now-famous dinner, Mr. Biden became exasperated by Mr. Karzai’s denials about corruption, threw down his napkin and declared, “This dinner is over.”

Mr. Biden also engaged in a tough talk with Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan at the time.

“His concept was to keep a small footprint, have an offshore strategy as the sole approach to seeking better security and stability in Afghanistan and focus on counterterrorism and the hard-core ideologues who won’t change,” General McNeill said. But the general disagreed: “It could lead to greater insecurity and instability in that region.”

Mr. Biden had also been influenced by the difficult years in Iraq. “The Iraq experience has been an important, formative one in the sense that Biden has been much more aware that fighting insurgents is not entirely a military process,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser who has talked with Mr. Biden about it.

When Mr. Biden visited Afghanistan in January for a third time, he returned increasingly convinced that America’s national interest lay in Pakistan. With fewer than 100 Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan, he reasoned, the nation was investing disproportionate resources in the wrong country.

In an interview hours after he returned, Mr. Biden sounded deeply pessimistic. “There’s very little governance, there’s significant corruption and the drug trade is humongous,” he said. While some allies had been helpful, he said, “others have dropped the ball considerably.” So Mr. Obama needed “fresh assessment of and assertion of what the goal” should be.

Nine months later, Mr. Obama is reassessing his goal. While officials anticipate that he will fall between the suggestions from Mr. Biden and his commanding general in Afghanistan, they agree that Mr. Biden has shaped the choices — not entirely unlike his predecessor, Dick Cheney.

“There are some ironic similarities to Cheney’s definition of the job and Biden’s in one sense,” Mr. Haass said. “They’re both people who are not hobbled by their own ambitions, they’re both experienced national security hands, and it freed up Cheney and it frees up Biden to give an honest take.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

This article, "Biden No Longer a Lone Voice on Afghanistan," first appeared in The New York Times.

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