Anything but Sleepy, Joe
By Amir Oren
President Joseph R. Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11 has intriguing lessons for Israel, and not just because it is now one of the westernmost countries under Central Command in the Pentagon’s global theater outline, with Afghanistan the easternmost.
The military involvement in Afghanistan derived from al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, which also led some 18 months later to the invasion of Iraq. During the past two decades, most of the attention of the D.C. Defense establishment has been focused on the CENTCOM area of operations. There was never an ideal time to withdraw the last residual forces, for fear that the problems which drew the Americans in will not disappear, but rise up once again and come back to haunt them.
Biden set out to cut the Gordian knot. He does not, can not, know for sure whether the desired outcome will be achieved. But he has decided to decide. Staying the course always seems safer than making a departure into the dark. Biden, however, has weighed the pro’s and con’s of staying and leaving, and came down on the side of disengagement.
Israel has no stake in the Afghan conflict, per se. It is very intetested in the substance and style of the Biden Administration’s national security and foteign policy decision making. Three months into his term, Biden has provided the world and the region with a model which may well be later seen, with proper adjustments, closer to home in the Middle East.
Above all, Biden has proven that he is a man on a mission – and in a hurry. At 78, the oldest Commander in Chief in American history, he does not behave as if he is betting on two terms ending in January 2029. His internal clock his ticking. With a 50-50 tie in the Senate and next year’s mid-term elections – which the party in power usually loses in Congress – looming, it is practically now or never for him. If that’s the case, the answer is now.
So Biden is bold enough – his critics would say rash – to break with the past. In the process, he has demonstrated a sense of the need to prioritise. Not all priorities are equal, not all of them can be top. There must be some hierarchy, with the ones at the bottom not making the cut. If his main focus is on China and Russia, if so-called “legacy” policies and systems must be cast aside in order to make room for up-to-date and future ones, then the important but less so will have to obey the law of relativity.
In reaching his decision, Biden is reported to have over-ruled several senior military officers in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CENTCOM, Special Operations and the Afghan itself, aling with the CIA. Their recommendations, to leave several hundred officers and operatirs around to monitor Taliban activities and help the government security forces, were part of the input, reflecting their best professional judgment, yet his Constitutional authority and political mandate gave him a broader perspective, leading to his decision.
To Israelis, this may bring up memories of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision in May 2000 on a full and complete withdrawal of IDF troops out of Lebanon, after 18 years of being stationed there and with no guarantee that the indigenous enemy, Hezbollah, will not continue the hostilities. Barak, like Vice-President Biden in the Obama Administration, served in a senior position earlier – IDF Chief of Staff and thereby military advisor to Prime Ministers (the two Yitzhaks, Shamir and Rabin) who would not withdraw under the prevailing conditions of the time. Both Barak and now Biden have thus reversed long-held policies which they lived with earlier, even when yhey took issue with them. This, apparently, is the difference between being near the top and reaching the summit.
Biden has enough on his plate now. Russia, regarding Ukraine and a general chill in Washington-Moscow relations. China, the long-range main rival. And Afghanistan will test him five months from now, following the ceremonies commemorating 9/11.
It all means that he has no appetite for Persian cuisine. He wants to close the Iranian Nuclear file, or at least put it in a back drawer for five to 10 years. His associates are quite candid about it, claiming that the Trump Administration, by revoking the 2015 deal with Tehran, took an imperfect situation and made it much worse. The indirect Vienna talks are meant to lead to a new – or renewed, insist the Iranians – Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action. Biden definitely does not want to make use of Trump-era “Maximum Pressure” tactics, which in his view were counter-productive. Israeli officials who publicly counseled him to be a sort of Trumbiden missed the point.
Iran is still listed as actively hostile, scheming against the United States and its regional allies and partners, but this is par for the course in international relations as long as it remains in the conventional realm. Crossing the nuclear threshold takes it to another level. Therefore, the core of the debate is whether or not Iran is indeed on path to develop its Nuke arsenal.
Israel’s Director of Military Intelligence, Major General Tamir Heyman recently made public his assessment that Iran has not decided to go nuclear – 2003 is generally considered the year when it froze its decision making process, for fear of American invasion – and that were it to make this fateful decision today, it would still be two years away from getting its first nuclear weapon. Provided, of course, no one intervenes during these two years – highly unlikely, given Israel’s vow to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the invasive intelligence monitoring of Iran’s activities.
The crucial piece in this puzzle was added earlier this week in the annual threar assessment by the five heads of U.S. inteliigence – DNI, CIA, DIA, NSA and FBI. “We continue to assess,” they reported to Congress, public, Tehran
and Tel Aviv, “that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.” They went on to suggest that “compliance for compliance” is the only practical route to avoid heightened tensions on this subject.
Biden’s Afghan decision reflects his over-all concept of governance, evident also in his domestic agenda. He is not beholden to the status quo, he listens to advice but follows his own policy ideas, he does not hesitate to clash with important groups and he wants to act swiftly. Much as he respects the military, or his predecessors (Obama and Bush, not Trump), or for that matter Israel, he will not subordinate his own opinions to theirs. He is a reformer, or even a transformer, at least by inclination. Whether he is strong enough to force it against opposition would depend on many variables, most of them out of his control.
If time and political capital permit, this could mean not only a confrontation with Israel on Iran, in a remake of 2015, but also on the peace process with the Palestinians. When Obama and Biden took office a dozen years ago, they set out immediately to work on it, eliciting from Benjamin Netanyahu a settlement freeze and support for a Palestinian State. Netanyahu, at the time, won an election and returned to power. Now the reverse is true. His grip on power is at doubt and he is being tried on corruption charges. There is no point in Biden inserting himself into the Israeli political debate by prematurely restarting the stalled talks. But a few weeks or months from now, if Israel has a stable cabinet, led by either Netanyahu or one of his rivals, the Afghan and Iranian pattern will probably be repeated vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Biden Administration looked the other way when Iran accused Israel of sabotaging the Natanz facility, two days after the DNI plus 4 assessment was signed, and European diplomats – and American Senators – publicly suspected that the real sabotage target was Vienna. But this may be a temporary, tactical silence. If the Israeli action backfired, as seems probable, the noise will not be muffled for long.