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Here’s what Biden says he’ll do about the war on terrorism

Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks to troops at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (Staff Sergeant Charles Larkin Sr./U.S. Air Force)
September 18, 2020

During a Thursday town hall with CNN, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would be in favor of ending wars that “don’t have an end in sight”

Biden was asked Thursday by a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan if, as president, Biden would end the U.S. military involvement in “unnecessary, endless wars that don’t have any end in sight.” Biden replied, “Yes I would.”

Biden also suggested there needs to be some continued U.S. presence in the region.

“The only presence we should have is a counterterrorism presence, not a counterinsurgency presence,” Biden said.

Biden did not say if his plan would include keeping troops in Afghanistan, but he said, “We have to be in a position where we can make it clear that, if need be, we could respond to terrorist activities coming out of that region directed toward the United States. It does not require a large force presence.”

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While Biden’s suggestion he would bring the “endless wars” to a close mirrors Trump’s own criticisms of endless wars, Biden claimed Trump “is the one that has increased the number, not reduced the number” during his presidency.

At the end of 2016, former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden had troop levels in Afghanistan at around 8,500. Trump did add several thousand more troops in Afghanistan in 2017 and 2018, following the advice of his military advisors. The Trump administration has since formed a peace agreement with the Taliban and, between the end of February and July, reduced troop levels from around 13,000 to around 8,600.

The Obama-Biden administration also oversaw a troop surge in Afghanistan and there were over 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the height of that surge.

The current U.S. troop presence is at about the same level as it was during the end of the Obama-Biden administration, and Trump has vowed continued efforts to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan. In August, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced plans to reduce the U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan below 5,000 by the end of November. According to the Washington Examiner, Trump’s current plan would have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May of 2021.

During his remarks on Thursday, Biden said “It’s now public knowledge, I was opposed to the significant increase in our presence at the time in Afghanistan.” It was unclear from his remarks if Biden was indicating opposition to the troop surge during the Obama-Biden administration or the smaller surge overseen by Trump.

Last week, Biden told Stars and Stripes he would maintain a force of between 1,500 and 2,000 troops on the ground in the Middle East to conduct counter-terror operations.

“These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State],” Biden told Stars and Stripes.

Biden said his idea for a small counter-terrorism presence to stay in the Middle East would entail coordinating with local governments to take out terror groups while avoiding the political dynamics of the countries where they are deployed.

The Trump administration itself has continued to push for reductions in troop levels throughout the Middle East. Last week, U.S. Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command announced plans to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq from around 5,000 to around 3,000 within the month of September.

In October 2019, Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops deployed in Syria, despite pushback from Congress. In August, the New York Times reported the U.S. still has around 500 troops in the country, mostly concentrated in the north, but Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said the military plans to reduce those troop levels as well.