It was 2009 and the Taliban was on the rise, while the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was on the ropes. More than 300 American personnel died over the course of the year.
The question facing U.S. President Barack Obama was whether the U.S. should pare back Operation Enduring Freedom, or redouble the national effort in Afghanistan for what would become the nation’s longest war.
In December, in a speech at West Point, Obama announced the U.S. would be surging an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan – nearly doubling the 70,000 forces already committed by President Georg W. Bush.
The additional sacrifice wouldn’t ultimately change the outcome of the war. But inside his administration a key confidant, Vice President Joe Biden, was despondent and defeated. He feared the nation was ‘drifting into another Vietnam’. Biden was at least confident that he had done all he could to resist the move. And he had the receipts to prove it.
President Joe Biden kept notebooks, notecards, and letters from his long campaign to try to persuade President Barack Obama not to send a large surge of troops to Afghanistan when a top general wanted to send 40,000
Fear of ‘another Vietnam’ – and a ‘hazy’ memory
‘Biden always believed he was right and that he would be vindicated by history,’ wrote Special Counsel Robert Hur in his bombshell 388-page report that said he would not charge Biden for possession of sensitive materials even while calling him an ‘elderly man’ with a ‘hazy’ memory.
As his previously secret contents of some of his notebooks reveal, Biden was determined even in defeat to memorialize his own lonely crusade trying to talk Obama out of it – more than a decade before as president he would pull U.S. forces out of the country, setting in motion a chaotic withdrawal.
Hur includes long descriptions of the documents themselves and some of the White House debates involved in his report, helping establish why Biden kept the information that was ultimately key evidence in his classified documents probe.
‘Early in the administration, Mr. Biden opposed President Obama’s decision to deploy additional American troops to Afghanistan, and in the administration’s internal debates, Mr. Biden was the lone dissenter. Privately, he worried the nation was drifting into another Vietnam,’ Hur writes, citing an entry from one of Biden’s notebooks.
Biden kept reams of notebooks, monogramed notecards, and an emphatic hand-written letter to the president, crafted over a Thanksgiving weekend in Nantucket, imploring the Commander in Chief not to commit the nation to another quagmire.
Biden memorialized his steps and tactics trying to talk President Barack Obama out of surging U.S. troops into Afghanistan. But some of his notes ended up in his home office in Wilmington
Biden feared the additional forces would commit the U.S. to a Vietnam-like situation
Biden took notes about security meetings leading up to Obama’s decision
Prosecutors say he shared information about the internal discussions with his ghostwriter
Biden saw himself as a ‘historic figure,’ Hur writes
Resisting a decorated general who wanted to send 40,000
Arguing against him was decorated Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was in command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and who helped take out Iraqi terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
McChrystal wanted as many as 40,000 new troops. Also arrayed against Biden were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Gen. David Petraeus, notes Hur, who cites biographies by Gates and Obama.
Biden considered the Pentagon’s lobbying for troops ‘f***ing outrageous.’
He took a series of steps to try to resist the idea, scribbling down accounts of his best efforts. He debated security officials during nine meetings Obama convened on the troop surge proposal. He buttonholed his boss. And he made efforts to marshal his best arguments on paper and get them in front of the president.
As was his habit, Biden took notes in his notebook labeled ‘Af/Pac.’
Photos from this period show Biden taking notes at these meetings – including one where he was seated across a long table from Clinton and another looking at ‘two marked classified documents that were later recovered from his Delaware garage’ during the probe.
Some of Hur’s conclusions are drawn from his interviews that Biden submitted to voluntarily. Biden boasted to Hur that Obama ‘thought that I knew a lot more about Afghanistan than he did and other members of the administration.’ The said Biden ‘forcefully opposed’ McChrystal’s 40,000 troop surge to beef up counterinsurgency.
Biden wrote that he was able to ‘punch a hole’ in the arguments of his opponents.
‘If I succeed in slowing down or stopping this misguided (policy) buildup it will make taking this job worthwhile. This decision will define our Admin[istration] in history –- hanging out there alone is worth it. I don’t want history to associate me with the adoption of’ the policy, he wrote in one notebook passage.
Obama was moving toward a compromise surge of 30,000 with a timeline for drawing down troops, but Biden wasn’t done intervening.
Hand-writing a Thanksgiving memo to Obama from Nantucket
He called the introduction of troops a ‘strategic blunder’ in a memo to Obama shortly before Thanksgiving, 2009.
Then, Biden went to Nantucket with his family, as part of a tradition he continues to this day.
He labored on yet one more memo, venting that he was ‘tired and angry’ at staff trying to box Obama in through leaks.
He wrote in his own notes that the hand-written memo was ‘placed in Pres. Hands’ the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
It was the ‘first and only time’ Biden wrote such a hand-written letter just for Obama. The document would later be recovered in his home in 2023, and contained information at the ‘Secret’ level.
The Taliban made steady gains before Biden finally withdrew the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan
The box circled in the foreground contained documents about Afghanistan. The picture was taken in December 2022 in Biden’s garage, with other household items
Biden wrote to himself that he considered resigning over the issue
Memory lapse about ally he cited
Hur used that memo as the basis to take one of his many shots at Biden’s memory recall, saying it was ‘hazy when describing the Afghanistan debate that was once so important to him.’
‘Among other things, he mistakenly said he “had a real difference” of opinion with General Karl Eikenberry, when, in fact, Eikenberry was an ally whom Mr. Biden cited approvingly in his Thanksgiving memo to President Obama,’ according to the report.
Biden felt ‘guilty’ and ‘boxed in’, and knew he was going to lose the day before Obama made his final decision, he wrote, using novelistic language about where he stood.
‘Tomorrow the President is going to make a fateful decision regarding Afghanistan – as I sat looking out the window at the sea – thinking I should resign in protest over what will bring his administration down,’ he wrote in a notebook.
‘Although I obviously wasn’t there I feel like this is what it must have felt like for Kennedy then Johnson in the early days ofVTN [Vietnam]. I feel guilty and boxed in myself. Guilty not having been more successful w/ the President – and staying,’ he said.
One final in-person pitch to Obama
Biden still wasn’t done. He made a last-ditch in-person pitch to Obama, leaving his family behind in Nantucket to be with Obama. He tried for a private talk with Obama but got ‘rebuffed,’ according to former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who told Hur Biden feared ‘sending tens of thousands of Americans over to a pointless war.’ He showed up early to the White House so he could walk with Obama, to no avail.
‘I think – I hope – I did all I could have done to move us as far away from [Petraeus and McChrystal] as possible,’ he wrote, in yet another notebook entry that seems designed for posterity.
Some of Biden’s ruminating, though not classified information, ended up in his first memoir, ‘Promise Me Dad.’
He is accused of sharing classified information with his ghostwriter, Mark Zwonitzer, and Hur relates times Biden himself mentioned classified material during recorded conversations with him.
Hur writes with a tad of doubt that Biden ‘has long seen himself as a historic figure’, and recounts some of his long political biography.
‘He believed his record during decades in the Senate made him worthy of the presidency, and he collected papers and artifacts related to significant issues and events in his career. He used these materials to write memoirs published in 2007 and 2017, to document his legacy, and to cite as evidence that he was a man of presidential timber,’ according to the report.
His own Vice President Kamala Harris blasted Hur’s report Friday for including for ‘gratuitous’ shots at Biden.
Despite the effort, Obama rejected his vice president’s advice.
‘But Mr. Biden always believed he was right and that he would be vindicated by history,’ according to Hur.
He kept the documents, referring them while shaping the books that would memorialize his long career. The volumes helped kept him in the public eye and helped establish his persona in a primary process where in 2020, when he took heat for opposing the Iraq war authorization and then opposing a troop surge by President Bush in 2007.
Strong ‘motive’ to hang onto documents
By including the long passages about Obama and Afghanistan, Hur elevates Biden’s commitment to his cause and his legacy. But he also puts the saga to his own use: it establishes a ‘motive’ for Biden to hang onto information he should have given to the National Archives. (Biden stated that he believed some of the material belonged to him).
‘Mr. Biden had a strong motive to keep the classified Afghanistan documents. He believed President Obama’s 2009 troop surge was a mistake on par with Vietnam. He wanted the record to show that he was right about Afghanistan; that his critics were wrong; and that he had opposed President Obama’s mistaken decision forcefully when it was made – that his judgment was sound when it mattered most,’ according to the report.
Biden kept the classified Afghanistan documents near other items of ‘great personal importance,’ including photos of Beau.
The Thanksgiving Obama memo laid down a marker on Biden’s posture.
‘In December 2022 and January 2023, FBI agents recovered these materials from Mr. Biden’s Delaware garage and office,’ writes Hur.
That was a year and a half after Biden as president was able to pull the last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. Thirteen U.S. service members died in a terror attack during the withdrawal. His favorability rating in the Gallup poll has never risen above 50 per cent since then.