Sep 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden, troop levels and the 9/11 legacy

Photo illustration collage of President Trump, Joe Biden, the Twin Towers, and soldiers.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: Win McNamee and Drew Angerer

Despite pressure from the left, Joe Biden is making it clear that if he wins, he won't just pull up stakes from Afghanistan and the region.

Driving the news: Biden made news on Thursday when he told Stars and Stripes that he supports a sustained U.S. military footprint of up to 1,500-2,000 on the ground — primarily for special operations against ISIS and other terror threats — in the war that began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks 19 years ago.

  • "These forever wars have to end ... but here's the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism," Biden said.
  • He also told the military newspaper he doesn't expect major cuts to the U.S. defense budget given the threats posed by China and Russia and the need for more cyber and unmanned technology.

Why it matters: Biden's insistence on a counter-ISIS force puts him to the right of President Trump's rhetoric — though the maximum levels Biden is talking about are lower than what the winner in November can expect to inherit — but the Democratic nominee's stance also could give some assurances to centrist voters from both parties.

  • Biden's stance unnerves progressives who dearly want a Democrat back in the White House but crave more of an anti-war figure.
  • The decision to authorize force is among the most consequential in any presidency, and Biden has been careful to preserve his options. The former vice president holds a bedrock belief that military force can be justified, and he supported President Obama’s targeted drone killings.

Trump and Biden are scheduled to mark the 9/11 anniversary today with separate stops at a memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 slammed into a field as the passengers and crew fought the Al Qaeda hijackers.

  • Biden also is scheduled to attend a ceremony in New York.

The big picture: Asked by reporters earlier this week whether he supports Trump's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq, Biden said: “Yes, I do. As long as he has a plan to figure out how he’s going to deal with ISIS.”

  • During a CNN debate in January, Biden said: "I think it's a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS.”

What they're saying: “Joe Biden recognizes that sometimes you have to take life in order to save life,” former CIA director John Brennan, told Axios.

  • “I cannot see him cowering because some progressives on the left have this misimpression on what these counter-terrorism strikes entail,” said Brennan, whose memoir, “Undaunted,” is set for release next month.
  • "It’s not a high priority to go to zero troops," said Derek Chollet, who served in the Pentagon under President Barack Obama and supports Biden. "But he doesn’t want a lot of troops everywhere.”
  • “Biden is on the conservative side of where the party is,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. “But his advisers are very engaged in the conversation and are very aware of where the Democratic base is moving.”
  • Duss said that while “Trump does seem to have an aversion to large scale interventions and wars," he also shows "reckless" tendencies that have "come dangerously close to drawing us into another" war.

Between the lines. Some progressives want nothing less than a clean break from the policies of the Obama-Biden administration on targeted killings and foreign intervention. Others see progress in the disavowal in the Democratic Party platform of regime change and the call to end “forever wars.”

  • Biden "needs to not just undo the damage of the Trump years but also take a fresh look at what didn’t work during the Obama years,” said Stephen Miles, the executive director of Win Without War. “The targeted killing program definitely falls into that category.”

In 36 years in the Senate, Biden adopted a case-by-case approach for when military intervention is justified, voting against the first Gulf War in 1991 but for the Iraq invasion in 2003, for which he faced criticism in the 2008 and 2020 primaries.

  • Sanders admonished last December: “Joe, you’re also the guy who led us into the disastrous war in Iraq."
  • Biden soured on the war in Afghanistan and argued against the troop surge. He has not emphasized regret over his 2003 Iraq war vote the same way as other Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have. Last year, he suggested launching some counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan via bases in Pakistan.

Be smart: Trump’s rhetoric about bringing home all the troops doesn't match the current reality.

  • He ordered the Pentagon this week to reduce U.S. military personnel in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 and decrease the footprint in Afghanistan from 8,600 to 4,500, but he hasn’t followed through on the total withdrawal he touts on the campaign trail.
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