A politically diverse set of veterans’ groups found ways
to gain access to the White House to lobby for withdrawals.
Jennifer Steinhauer / The New York Times
(July 6, 2021) — WASHINGTON — Soon after President Biden announced that the United States military would withdraw from Afghanistan, hawks in Congress accused him of accepting defeat. But a diverse group of war veterans — many of whom had clashed bitterly with one another over the years — stepped in to provide him political cover.
Closely coordinating with the White House’s National Security Council, a coalition that included Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group funded by the Koch network; Common Defense, a longtime antagonist of former President Donald J. Trump; and the Secure Families Initiative, a nonpartisan group of military spouses, wrote opinion columns, began social media campaigns and released a stream of statements pushing for an end to America’s longest war. The American Legion, the nation’s largest veteran service organization, also came out in support of the new policy, to the surprise of many.
Over 20 years of war, American veterans have been venerated by Republicans and Democrats but lacked cohesive political influence. Democrats and the operatives around them often assumed that most veterans were conservative and failed to court them, and for years, leaders in both parties believed most veterans supported the conflicts abroad.
But as the conflicts dragged on, veterans and military families increasingly united around public positions critical of the wars, and found ways to gain access to the White House to lobby for withdrawal from them.
Similar efforts by lawmakers have also brought together unlikely allies, like Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California and once a lone voice against the wars, and Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona.
“Veterans acted as a liaison between the administration and the general public in terms of explaining what the impact of two decades of war were on American lives,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a research organization that has become increasingly influential among anti-interventionists in Washington. Mr. Weinstein served as a Marine and deployed to Afghanistan in 2012.
The movement against the “forever war” began in the last half of the Bush administration, with large protests around the countryfocused as much on the president as on the war on his watch. It is now fueled by a politically diverse group that was energized by Mr. Trump’s chin-out defiance of American adventures abroad, and by the election of Mr. Biden, who had been a critic of operations in Afghanistan as vice president.
President Biden attending a Memorial Day service in Delaware in May. Mr. Biden’s position on Afghanistan most likely helped him make inroads with veteran households in 2020.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
Veterans have often made the case that the mission in the region had outlasted its original intent, and that an all-volunteer force should not be tasked with nation-building. But their forceful support of the withdrawal could be tested if the violence in the country continues to worsen as the last American troops leave.
“Veterans are credible messengers on issues of war and peace,” said William Ruger, the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and Mr. Trump’s last nominee as ambassador to Afghanistan.
“They are important cue givers to the public and policymakers,” said Mr. Ruger, a veteran of the war who remains an officer in the Navy Reserve. “This isn’t going to be a one-act story.”
The election of President Barack Obama largely quelled the antiwar movement as opponents of the conflicts assumed he would move quickly to end them.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, distinguished himself from Senator Hillary Clinton on war matters. More notably, Mr. Trump openly criticized the conflicts, setting him apart from other Republicans in the field and Mrs. Clinton.
“We saw the way that Donald Trump was tapping into the frustration with the wars,” said Alexander McCoy, a Marine Corps veteran and the political director for Common Defense. “This was a huge danger to Democrats because veterans were not excited about her.” At the same time, he said, “there was an inaccurate perception among Democratic operatives that veterans are conservative. We knew we needed to fix that to beat him.”
Mr. Trump ultimately did not deliver on his promise to get remaining troops out of Afghanistan, thwarted in part by conflicts among his closest advisers over the policy. But as even Mr. Biden has conceded, Mr. Trump set the table.
“President Trump helped propel the movement,” Mr. Ruger said. “That created the conditions in which the Biden administration came to office.”
Near the end of Mr. Trump’s term, the United States signed a deal with the Taliban to end the conflict in Afghanistan, giving the movement among veterans more fuel.
VoteVets, a group that works to elect Democratic veterans and to bring veterans out to vote, also furiously lobbied Mr. Biden and other Democratic primary contenders on withdrawal.
It joined forces with Concerned Veterans for America, a group with which it had sparred on veterans’ policy issues and that did not support Mr. Biden, to work on members of Congress to support withdrawal.
Mr. Biden, whose son Beau Biden served in the Army National Guard, signaled early on he was open to the message. “The first thing I would do as president of the United States of America is to make sure that we brought all combat troops home and enter into a negotiation with the Taliban,” he said during a debate.
An Air Force veteran campaigning at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Election Day last year.Credit…Ralph Lauer/EPA, via Shutterstock
Mr. Biden’s position on the war most likely helped him make inroads with veteran households in 2020, a group Mr. Trump won 55 to 43 percent, down 14 points from 2016.
The Taliban agreement, Mr. Biden’s election and exhaustion with a war that had killed thousands provided a window for the groups.
“We saw this last half a year as a once-in-20-year opportunity,” said Sarah Streyder, the executive director of Secure Families Initiative. “You had a new administration with a record of supporting this kind of direction, and the inheritance of agreement. Many of our peers in this space agreed that if we really wanted this policy to happen, now is the time to ramp up the efforts. We began yelling loudly, having meetings on the Hill and the White House.”
White House officials acknowledged that advocates for veterans have met regularly with officials at the National Security Council and other agencies since Mr. Biden’s election. “We had the signal that now is a good time to push,” Ms. Streyder said.
When Mr. Biden finally announced his plans, some veterans were more cautious. “I support the Biden administration’s decision to finally bring our longest war to an end,” said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger. “But we must do so in a way that keeps our promises to our allies, protects the women and children of Afghanistan, and ensures a safer and more secure world.”
But a large contingent celebrated publicly, and the administration was quick to blast out those remarks. “It’s like we say in the Marines, ‘No better friend, no worse enemy,’ ” said Mr. McCoy, adding that his group would continue to defend Mr. Biden’s decision and criticize any further military conflicts. “They always pick up the phone when we call.”
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