There was a key section in the president’s speech which, in the chaos of the Afghan withdrawal, might get overlooked.
“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades,” he said, “we’ve got to learn from our mistakes.
“To me, there are two that are paramount. First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals – not ones we’ll never reach.
“And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”
And then the crux: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
As the dust settles from the chaos of the past two weeks in Afghanistan, beyond the message the hasty exit sent to allies, foes and terrorists, a clear shift in America’s desired position in the world is emerging.
If observers thought Donald Trump’s inward looking “America first” mantra was a blip, maybe they were wrong.
This was President Biden’s latest address to the nation from the White House.
It was the speech where he hoped to draw a line under a brutal few weeks for American leadership.
He defensively declared a mission accomplished, but he could only honestly claim a success in achieving a retreat.
“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety… The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery, and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomats and intelligence professionals,” he said.
He defended, again, his decision to bring the war to an end: “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”
He reflected on the past fortnight, conceding that assumptions had been wrong but claiming that the chaos was factored in.
“The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban. That assumption – that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown – turned out not to be accurate.”
For terrorist groups, there was this warning: “We are not done with you yet. To those who wish America harm, know this. The US will never rest. We will never rest. We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth and you will pay the ultimate price.”
Yet, he said that the focus would be where terrorists hide now, not where they hid two decades ago. That, despite the evidence that al Qaeda and ISIS endure and could prosper in Afghanistan.
The president can, for now, successfully claim that this so-called forever war is over for America.
But the legacy of his decision will follow him – the impact on relations with allies because the chaos has cost them politically, the message it sends to China and Russia about American priorities, and then there is the all-important reaction of the American people – that’s what drove him.
They wanted the war finished, but it’s how it came to an end. A humiliation? People and equipment left behind; an enemy and terrorists emboldened.
South of Kabul in the city of Khost, Taliban supporters staged a mock funeral, with coffins draped in the flags of France, Britain, America and NATO.
It was a message from them but maybe also a reflection of the end of an era in western foreign policy – America and its allies no longer able or willing to uphold their values, through force if necessary, beyond their borders.
Right or wrong, that marks a fundamental shift.