Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AP
By the time he had become President Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden’s commitment to the Afghanistan War had cooled. He was one of the most prominent voices in the administration arguing against the scope of the 2009 “surge” policy that saw tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan at the behest of top generals. Biden favored a smaller deployment of troops and the use of drones and special forces raids, a policy described as a “counterterrorism plus” in a short-paper reportedly authored by Biden that year.
Biden wrote the memo to Obama laying out his opposition to full-blown counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. “I do not see how anyone who took part in our discussions could emerge without profound questions about the viability of counterinsurgency,” Biden wrote, according to journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his book “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.” Chandrasekaran added that Biden was skeptical that the U.S. had the ability to stand up a serviceable Afghan government. In an exchange with then-U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, recorded in Holbrooke’s diary, Biden reportedly expressed total disillusionment with his previous belief in a U.S.-led rebuilding of Afghanistan, telling Holbrooke, “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!” Biden added, “It just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for.”
Biden instead advocated “CT-plus,” a smaller-scale surge, and keeping teams of special operations forces and the CIA in the country and region to carry out anti-terrorism missions, as well as expanded use of drone strikes. During the surge deliberations, Biden reminded Obama that the congressionally sanctioned purpose for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was 9/11 and holding Al Qaeda accountable. In a series of memos Biden prepared for Obama, he argued that “it was not necessary to defeat the Taliban because the Taliban was and is part of the fabric of the Pashtun society,” estimating that 70 to 80 percent of the Taliban “should be integrated into Afghan society.” Biden bluntly assessed that the Taliban was not “an existential threat to the United States of America” and said that “it was against their interest” to welcome Al Qaeda back to Afghanistan. He was vehemently opposed to proposals for what he considered “nation building.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former special operations commander who Obama tapped to head the Afghanistan War, was pushing hard for using “COIN,” the counterinsurgency doctrine that called for large-scale U.S. troop deployments to “win hearts and minds.” Asked if he supported Biden’s proposal to use drones and special forces to focus primarily on Al Qaeda elements, McChrystal said, “The short, glib answer is no.” McChrystal publicly ridiculed Biden’s ideas at a security conference in London. According to the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, McChrystal “dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as ‘shortsighted,’ saying it would lead to a state of ‘Chaos-istan.’” McChrystal and his aides would frequently mock Biden, according to Hastings. In one incident, McChrystal and his advisers gamed out possible responses to offer if asked about Biden’s critiques of the Afghan war plan:
[U]nable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.
“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”
Obama famously excoriated McChrystal aboard Air Force One for his attacks against Biden. After Hastings’s explosive report was published, he fired the general. In the end, Obama effectively implemented both the larger-scale surge and Biden’s preferred campaign of drone strikes, special operations raids, and CIA action. “When Vice President Biden was briefed on the new plan in the Oval Office, insiders say he was shocked to see how much it mirrored the more gradual plan of counterterrorism that he advocated,” according to Hastings.