Now that President Joe Biden has taken office, his first major challenge as commander in chief will be to find the most effective way to use the military to fight the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has cost the lives of more than 400,000 Americans so far and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Last March, Biden said the COVID-19 outbreak is “like a war” that requires a full government response including the Pentagon.
“I would call out the military, now,” Biden said during a presidential debate on CNN. “They have the capacity to provide the surge help that hospitals need – and is needed across the nation. They’ve done it. They did it in the Ebola crisis. They’ve done it. They have the capacity to build 500-bed hospitals in tents that are completely safe and secure.”
However, the Defense Department only achieved lackluster results last year when it tried to help civilian hospitals deal with the surge of patients. The hospital ship USNS Comfort was dispatched to New York City, which was the epicenter of the crisis at the time, but it treated relatively few people.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told service members and other Defense Department personnel that they will continue to be part of the federal government’s efforts to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, but he did not specify how.
“We must help the federal government move further and faster to eradicate the devastating effects of the coronavirus,” Austin said in his first message to the force. “To that end, we will also do everything we can to vaccinate and care for our workforce and to look for meaningful ways to alleviate the pressure this pandemic has exerted on you and your families.”
Biden has said he wants to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of COVID-19 vaccines. (Former President Donald Trump also used the Defense Production Act in response to the pandemic, but $1 billion was awarded for non-medical items to tide defense industry over.)
Some of the president’s other priorities as commander in chief include overhauling which technology the Pentagon invests in, overturning the ban on certain transgender people joining the military, and keeping a light military footprint in the Middle East and elsewhere to fight terrorism.
But the Biden administration’s overall approach to the military may not be too much different from what troops have experienced in the past four years, said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert with the liberal Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
“We have a pretty strong bipartisan consensus already in favor of steady (but flat) defense spending, which I think Biden will support given the substance as well as the politics,” O’Hanlon, who advised the Biden campaign, wrote in an email. “And on the war on terror, Trump was noisy and blunt and used lots of brinkmanship but ultimately followed policies not radically different from Obama’s or from what Biden has historically favored himself!”
Aside from how to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, one of Biden’s most pressing decisions will be whether to carry out the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May, per an agreement with the Taliban.
As vice president, Biden opposed sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of the surge there. He also advocated for limiting the mission to counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency.
Since then, the Trump administration has drawn down to about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of a concerted effort to leave the country, regardless of conditions on the ground. While the Taliban are nominally supposed to fight terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS as a condition for the rest of U.S. forces to leave, the exit sign is clearly visible.
Absent a peace deal, the full withdrawal of U.S. forces at this point would likely endanger the Afghan government’s survival and allow the Taliban to advance into Afghan cities, said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
“This is why the Biden administration, once it gets up to speed, may try to push for a strategic pause in the withdrawal schedule in order to give more of a chance for negotiations to lead to a violence reduction agreement,” Kugelman said. “Washington can argue that since the intra-Afghan dialogue began later than the US-Taliban accord said it should start, the whole time frame should be adjusted.”
In a conversation with his Afghan counterpart on Friday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the U.S. government plans to review the Feb. 29 withdrawal agreement to see if the Taliban are living up to their commitments.
But even if the Biden administration delays the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban are still likely to resist calls from the U.S. government to reduce the level of violence in the country, Kugelman said.
“The insurgents have signaled that they’ll consider such concessions only after all U.S. troops have left,” Kugelman said.
Needless to say, with several crises unfolding at home and overseas, Biden is going to face a very bumpy ride as commander in chief. Buckle your chin strap.
Featured image: President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes the presidential oath of office at the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Gabriel Silva)
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.