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Forever Wars & the Middle East: Policy Briefing

Forever Wars & the Middle East

The Biden Plan for Ending the War in Afghanistan and Addressing Ongoing Middle East Conflicts

UPDATED July 9, 2021

As president, Biden will be tasked with navigating ongoing conflicts across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; pacifying tensions with Iran, addressing Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen, and navigating the Israel-Palestine territorial dispute. As a senator, Biden voted to invade Afghanistan in 2001, but he voted against sending troops in 2007 and articulated a commitment to ending the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East as a 2020 presidential candidate. During the presidential campaign, he pledged to end Middle East conflicts, but his campaign platform only mentioned Afghanistan and made no mention of Iraq. Biden’s commitment to ending U.S. wars in the Middle East has so far centered on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which he has pledged to do by September 11, 2021. This date is past the deadline of May 1 that Biden inherited from the Trump administration’s peace deal with the Taliban—negotiated without the Afghan government’s involvement—in February 2020. Biden’s newly appointed Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin—who oversaw the large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011—will be tasked with overseeing the withdrawal of the 3,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan. In the absence of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, violence levels are still high, and U.S. and Afghan officials have expressed fears that a U.S. withdrawal could lead to a complete takeover of the country by the Taliban.

Beyond Afghanistan, as a candidate, Biden criticized Trump’s airstrikes in Syria, his support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and his decision to pull troops from Kurdish territories in Northern Syria, calling the decision “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy.” However, Biden avoided making critical comments on the record about the Middle East policies that brought the Trump administration some of its biggest foreign policy wins—the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, the assassination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the U.S.’s success in eliminating ISIS’s territorial control, which reached 41,000 square miles at its height. While Trump increased troop deployment in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to 26,000 in late 2017, he reportedly brought combined troop levels down to roughly 10,000 in October 2020. However, in October 2017, Trump ended the longstanding Department of Defense practice of releasing official numbers on deployed troop levels in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, which left the actual number of remaining troops deployed since 2017 unclear. As president, Biden’s first military action as president was an airstrike on Iran-backed militias in Syria in February 2021, despite previous criticism of the Trump administration’s airstrikes in Syria. Based on this action, and Biden’s previous comments on his commitment to defending Kurdish troops from Turkish offensives, early indications are that a complete withdrawal of troops from Syria is not imminent. Likewise, Biden has made no comments on plans for removing troops from Iraq, despite the Department of State making a recent agreement with the Iraqi government that troops will eventually leave. This indicates that the timeline for U.S. withdrawal is likely still being assessed on an ongoing basis—the same stance ultimately taken by preceding administrations.

Troop Levels Across Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria Remained Low Under Trump, Despite a Slight Surge in 2017

Since the Bush administration, U.S. troops have maintained a constant presence in Afghanistan, with both Obama and Trump initiating surges in Afghanistan during their presidencies before lowering troop numbers near the ends of their terms. Biden enters office with U.S. troop numbers across Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria at their lowest levels since the initial U.S. invasion in 2001.

U.S. Troop Levels in Afghanistan, and Iraq and Syria, 2008-2020

  • October 21, 2011 – Obama initiates first full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
  • June 15, 2014 – Obama sends troops back into Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.

Note: Iraq & Syria numbers from 2012-2017 are maximum estimates.

Source: Congressional Research Service

Biden has criticized Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and advocated for de-escalating tensions in order to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. To date, the Biden administration has discussed lifting some Iranian sanctions, notably on Iran’s central bank, but it has left in place many of the sanctions from Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. In June 2021, the administration lifted several sanctions on former Iranian government officials and Iranian oil companies but also imposed new sanctions on some Iranian entities for their support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. While the Trump administration firmly supported Saudi Arabia, as a candidate Biden took a more critical stance, pledging to stop arms sales of offensive weapons to the kingdom, and as president, Biden took swift action and ended U.S. support for the war in Yemen in February 2021. However, despite publicly releasing the U.S. intelligence report that indicated that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden did not impose sanctions or hold MBS directly accountable due to fears that it would disrupt the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In contrast to previous administrations, Biden has deprioritized U.S. involvement in Israel-Palestine relations. When skirmishes between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces broke out in May 2021, the administration had not yet appointed an ambassador to Israel—Biden did eventually appoint Thomas Nides—and it waited a full week before calling for a cease-fire to the conflict that had killed 243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis as of May 24, 2021. Biden voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and the administration has maintained the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, pledged to strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance, and approved a $735 million weapons sale to Israel despite pushback from some congressional Democrats. However, Biden restored U.S. relations with the Palestinian National Authority in his first month in office, after the Trump administration had effectively ended them. Many of Biden’s policies do not represent a radical departure from the approach of the Trump or Obama administrations—despite a change in tone, the administration has not significantly altered diplomatic relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Iran in its first 100 days—and Biden’s appointments indicate a likely continuation on Middle East policy. Biden has appointed Brett McGurk as the National Security Center’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa—now working for the fourth consecutive administration primarily on the U.S. strategy in Iraq and combating ISIS. He has also appointed Antony Blinken as secretary of state. Blinken oversaw the U.S. response to Middle East instability across Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya as Biden’s national security advisor during the Obama administration. That both appointments return to the White House faced with resolving the same conflicts they worked on for previous administrations is indicative of the magnitude of the coming challenges.

Status of U.S. Involvement in Major Ongoing Armed Conflicts in the Middle East

While Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden all campaigned on ending Middle Eastern wars, the region has seen a series of escalating conflicts since the early 2000s, which has made withdrawal exceedingly difficult. Below, we break down the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East that Biden will have to address as president.

War in Afghanistan (2001–present)

There is still no official ceasefire in place between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and violence levels remain high. In 2021, the Taliban continued to carry out attacks and make territorial gains. The Biden administration has announced that it will withdraw all troops by September 11, 2021, if not before. However, the U.S. departing before an official peace deal is in place risks a potential civil war, a Taliban takeover, which seems increasingly likely, and/or the return of terrorist groups to the region. As of June 25, 2021, the Taliban controlled one-third of Afghanistan’s territory and were in engaging in armed conflict over another 42 percent. The Taliban are recapturing control of Afghanistan’s provinces at an alarming pace, holding twice as much territory in July 2021 as they did in April 2021.

Iraq War (2003–2011, 2014–Present)

The Islamic State no longer holds meaningful physical territory in Iraq, but splinter groups continue to operate throughout the country. In April 2018, the U.S. military disbanded the command overseeing U.S. ground forces fighting in Iraq, but the multinational joint task force led by the U.S. to combat ISIS is still present. There are currently roughly 2,500 troops remaining in Iraq to maintain stabilization efforts and train the Iraqi military. In April, the Biden administration agreed with the Iraqi government to remove remaining combat forces, but no concrete timeline for withdrawal was established. The major questions remaining for the Biden administration are when U.S. troops will be withdrawn and whether the Iraqi government will be able to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State without U.S. military presence.

Syrian Civil War (2011–Present)

President Obama’s handling of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 is widely considered one of his biggest foreign policy failures. Obama did not intervene directly and instead led limited airstrikes against Islamic State militants. Trump largely continued Obama’s policy in Syria and ultimately removed troops from Northern Syria in October 2019. As president, Biden has maintained the remaining 900 U.S. troops stationed in Syria. Now, his administration faces the question of how long to stay in Syria and must clarify the scope of U.S. objectives. It must decide whether the U.S. should intervene directly against the Assad government, defend Kurdish troops from Turkish aggression, and limit foreign influence from Iran and Russia.

Yemen Civil War (2014–Present)

The conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition backing president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has resulted in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. supported Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen while conducting separate air raids targeted at al-Qaeda militants. Biden has ended U.S. support for the war in Yemen but will continue U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda operatives. He stated that the U.S. would “continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people,” leaving the degree to which the U.S. will aid Saudi Arabia throughout his presidency unclear.

Libya Intervention (2011–Present)

Since Qaddafi’s death in 2011, Libya has experienced a state of constant unrest as the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) fight for control. A fragile interim government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has held since February 2021, but it remains in conflict with rebel factions in the east, led by Khalifa Hifter. The Islamic State made inroads into Libya in 2015, and the U.S. intervened primarily through airstrikes targeting Islamic State fighters. Due to escalating violence, the U.S. withdrew its remaining troops in April 2019. At present, the Islamic State has been physically pushed out of Libya, despite some volunteer fighters and scattered forces remaining, and the conflict between the LNA and the GNA reached a ceasefire in October 2020. Even with ISIS severely weakened in the country, the potential for a return to violence remains high in the absence of unified control over the country and its vast oil resources. The Biden administration will face the choice of continuing Trump’s policy of disengagement with Libya, opting for limited operations aimed at the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda or significantly increasing diplomatic involvement in hopes of proactively preventing another outbreak of civil war and further destabilization of the region.

Key Challenges for the Biden Administration

There is no straightforward way to end the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan, and Biden’s decision to withdraw troops completely risks plunging the region into a renewed civil war. The war in Afghanistan is the U.S.’s longest running armed conflict in history. It has cost nearly $1 trillion and has taken the lives of 2,300 American soldiers and at least 100,000 Afghan civilians while displacing millions of others. Despite three consecutive administrations (Bush, Obama, Trump) having promised a victory in Afghanistan and an end to the conflict, Biden took office facing many of the same issues in Afghanistan as his predecessors. The fundamental issue boils down to the enduring presence of the Taliban throughout the country, and the inability of the Afghan government to contain Taliban encroachment without U.S. support. The U.S. government no longer publishes the official numbers, but as of 2019, 53.8 percent of Afghan districts where under government control, 33.9 percent were contested, and the remaining 12.3 percent were under Taliban control. Further complicating matters, the Islamic State has expanded its presence into eastern Afghanistan, carrying out several major attacks in Kabul targeting civilians. Against this backdrop, President Trump negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, which set May 1, 2021, as the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal and included a declaration for establishing a permanent ceasefire. To date, there has been no indication of an imminent ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and violence levels across the region remained high throughout 2020. Biden has targeted September 11, 2021, for complete U.S. troop withdrawal, but this goal risks a prolonged conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with a strong possibility of the Taliban ultimately regaining control of the country. By June 2021, the U.S. withdrawal was halfway completed and officials suggested that the entire operation could be concluded as soon as July 4, 2021, two months ahead of schedule. According to reports, the U.S. military is proposing potential airstrikes in Kabul if the capital becomes at risk of falling back under Taliban control following the U.S. withdrawal, and a U.S. force of 650 personnel will remain in Kabul following the withdrawal.

A complete withdrawal from Iraq and Syria risks a repeat of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal in 2011, which created a power vacuum that contributed to the rise of ISIS. As a presidential candidate, Biden did not make a single mention of Iraq in his campaign platform and has been careful not to include Iraq in his references to ending “forever wars.” Biden is likely to continue to avoid addressing Iraq publicly, both due to his checkered history on the Iraq war and the increasingly likely scenario that troops will remain in Iraq throughout some, if not all, of his presidency. In his prepared remarks to the UN Security Council in February 2021, Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Mills stated that the U.S.’s top priorities in Iraq will be seeking “to help Iraq assert its sovereignty in the face of enemies, at home and abroad, by preventing an ISIS resurgence and working toward Iraq’s stability,” and that “the United States will remain a steady, reliable partner for Iraq, and for the Iraqi people . . . today and in the future.” The Biden administration has agreed to remove troops from Iraq, but fears remain over the Islamic State potentially regaining a foothold in the region, Iran’s increasing influence within the Iraqi government, and the potential for the country to regress into sectarian warfare. The same is true in Syria, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated the U.S.’s intent to support local partners in Syria’s northeast and maintain pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime for concessions. Pulling out of Iraq and/or Syria completely comes with major risks of repeating missteps from Obama’s 2011 withdrawal attempt, and the Biden administration has so far not outlined any concrete steps to do so.

While Biden has promised to be stricter on Saudi Arabia, the key role that the kingdom plays in containing Iran inhibits the U.S. from eschewing it as an ally. In his campaign platform, Biden promised to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and stated that he would stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and treat the kingdom as a “pariah” on the world stage. However, the centrality of Saudi Arabia in achieving the U.S.’s regional goals—countering Iran, stabilizing Syria and Iraq, and fighting the spread of violent extremism—makes it a critical regional ally. As the deteriorating U.S. relationship with Iran has led it to refuse a re-negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, and Saudi Arabia and Israel have moved closer toward a mutual alliance to counter Iran’s influence in the region, the Biden administration has been hesitant to alienate Saudi Arabia in practice. Instead, Biden’s policy to date has attempted to hold Saudi Arabia minimally accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but it has not gone so far as to seriously damage the alliance. After releasing the intelligence report implicating MBS directly in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration took steps to curb MBS’s direct access to Biden (as MBS is not the official head of state, he is now directed to interact with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin), sanctioned lower-level officials (but not MBS himself), and created the “Khashoggi Ban”—a visa restriction that prohibits entry to the U.S. by anyone who engages in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities” on behalf of a foreign government. Despite these measures, MBS largely escaped being held personally accountable—an implicit acknowledgment of the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship—despite widespread pushback in Congress and the press.