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President Biden bows his head as a question is asked in the East Room at the White House on Aug. 26, 2021.
President Biden bows his head as a question is asked in the East Room at the White House on Aug. 26, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post )

"We went there for two reasons, George. Two reasons. One, to get Bin Laden, and two, to wipe out as best we could, and we did, the al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We did it. Then what happened? Began to morph into the notion that, instead of having a counterterrorism capability to have small forces there in - or in the region to be able to take on al-Qaida if it tried to reconstitute, we decided to engage in nation-building. In nation-building. That never made any sense to me."

- President Joe Biden, interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Aug. 18

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There's a lot to unpack in this comment by Biden during his ABC News interview about the crisis in Afghanistan (some of which we have fact-checked previously). The president is summarizing two decades of U.S. policy in a few sentences, and it's unclear exactly what time period he is referring to when he says the policy "began to morph."

But the phrase that really jumped out at us is Biden's assertion that nation-building "never made any sense to me."

The Fact Checker was The Post's diplomatic correspondent for almost a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks. Our recollection was that the Bush administration initially wanted to have only a light footprint in Afghanistan after the Taliban was toppled and that members of Congress, including Biden, pushed officials to invest more in reconstruction and democracy-building. So is Biden reinventing history?

With the passage of time, memories fade and become distorted. So we've reviewed news clips and congressional debates and spoken to former Bush administration officials and other experts in an effort to get the history correct.

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It's certainly easy to find statements made by Biden after the invasion of Afghanistan in which he seemed to extol the virtues of nation-building. Here's a sampling.

Oct. 8, 2001, interview on CBS News. Bryant Gumbel asked Biden: "Should we be in the business of nation-building?" Biden responded: "Absolutely, along with the rest of the world." He argued that the world made a mistake when it ignored the country after the Russian withdrawal, giving the Taliban an opportunity to take power.

June 26, 2002, describing a conversation he had with a White House aide after meeting with President George W. Bush: "[The aide asked] 'You are not going to mention nation-building, are you?' I said, 'You mean what the President has spoken to me about for the last hour and 45 minutes?' I said, 'No, I won't mention that.' There is an incredible hang-up on this notion about 'nation-building,' just the use of the phrase, in my experience."

Feb. 12, 2003, at a Senate hearing: "In some parts of this administration, 'nation-building' is a dirty phrase. But the alternative to nation-building is chaos - a chaos that churns out bloodthirsty warlords, drug-traffickers and terrorists. We've seen it happen in Afghanistan before - and we're watching it happen in Afghanistan today."

Oct. 16, 2003, at a Senate hearing: "The fact of the matter is, we've missed an opportunity to do what many of us on this committee, including the senator about to sit down, have been pleading be done from the beginning. But because there has been this overwhelming reluctance on the part of some in the administration to get involved in genuine, quote, 'nation-building,' we essentially elected a mayor of Kabul and turned the rest over to the warlords, and we're paying a price for it now."

Oct, 4, 2004, in a Wall Street Journal editorial: "We also have to take seriously nation-building. This administration came to office disdaining the concept, only to be confronted with the two biggest nation-building challenges since World War II. Thus far, it merits a failing grade in both Afghanistan and Iraq."

But Carter Malkasian, who served for two years in Afghanistan and who just published the excellent "The American War in Afghanistan: A History," says that part of the problem in evaluating this statement is that "it comes down to what you define as nation-building." Is it reconstruction and building of state institutions by diplomats - or when the military gets involved?

"I don't think Biden is really reinventing history," he said. "I think the history can be interpreted in different ways depending on how we look at what the Bush administration said."

Even then, Malkasian said the historical record is still pretty murky about the Bush administration's policy after the invasion, as top officials never appeared to settle on a strategy.

"If there is a single document in which they say 'these are our goals,' I have not found it," he said. "Maybe it is still classified."

In theory, the administration's policy was that because failed states harbored terrorists, the United States needed to strengthen state capacity (and put them in the fight) to keep terrorists at bay. But it was not clearly articulated and not, at first, backed by substantial aid.

In his book, Malkasian shows the push and pull of the administration's policies. In April 2002, Bush appeared to call for a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan, but then never followed through. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld forbade commanders from pursuing nation-building and American diplomats were thwarted in pursuing policies to build up Afghan institutions.

In August 2002, in a front-page article in The Washington Post, this reporter wrote: "Outside experts say, and some administration officials conceded privately, that U.S. policy is hamstrung by President Bush's aversion to broad-based 'nation-building' and his refusal to expand the role of the international peacekeeping force outside Kabul. The resulting policy - high on the rhetoric of commitment and low on the level of engagement - amounts to a calculated gamble that things will work out."

Members of Congress, led by then-Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., and then-Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Biden, tried to fill the void by pressing the Bush administration to think bigger and to bolster the funds earmarked for reconstruction and security. They pushed through Congress the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002, which called for funding to address the humanitarian crisis, limit the production of narcotics, spur the creation of a "broad-based, multiethnic, gender-sensitive, and fully representative government," and foster the participation of civil society.

After the invasion of Iraq, amid criticism that Afghanistan had been forgotten by the administration, Bush shifted course in July 2003 and embraced a plan for a $1 billion aid package for Afghanistan, tripling the previous commitment. The $1 billion number was a figure Biden had proposed a year earlier.

"Reconstruction efforts were important to achieving our ultimate goal, which was to empower Afghans and assist them in acquiring the capability to help themselves," wrote then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in her 2011 memoir, "No Higher Honor." "But the truth is, it was often more construction than reconstruction in Afghanistan," as the country had been poorly developed before the U.S. invasion.

As part of Bush's "light footprint," the administration tried to subcontract state-building and peacekeeping to European allies and United Nations, while the United States focused on counterterrorism. That shifted after 2006, when the Taliban insurgency required the United States to add even more troops as part of a counterinsurgency strategy that included building up a central government that was still not capable of providing basic services.

Up until 2008, Biden kept complaining Bush was not taking reconstruction seriously enough. "The president promised a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. It has been nothing remotely approaching that," he said at a 2008 Senate hearing. "Building clinics and hospitals and roads on both sides of that border is relatively cheap, in light of what we're spending in other areas now, particularly Iraq, and has a gigantic potential payoff." Similarly, at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in 2008, Biden complained: "We have spent on Afghanistan's reconstruction in six years what we spend every three weeks - every three weeks - on our military operations in Iraq."

But Biden became a more vocal skeptic when President Barack Obama doubled down on Bush's counterinsurgency policy at the beginning of his term. Obama was determined to win the "good war" of Afghanistan, in contrast to the "bad war" of Iraq he had opposed. By that point, Biden, then the vice president, famously became the in-house skeptic.

"I argued strenuously against sending tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan," Biden recalled in a 2020 interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "I went there, I went all over the country. I concluded you could never unify that country. Nation building was never our responsibility there. Dealing with a small footprint of Special Forces to make sure we did not allow another al-Qaida operation to rise up and attack America again was what we should be doing."

Complicating matters, even though Bush had campaigned in 2000 as opposing nation-building by the military and that initially appeared to be his policy as president, he later indicated the Sept. 11 attacks had led him to shift course.

"After 9/11, I changed my mind: Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission," he wrote in his 2010 memoir, "Decision Points." "We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society," because "a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists."

It's not clear when Bush embraced nation-building. Two weeks after the attacks, he had insisted: "We're not into nation-building. We're into justice." His spokespeople repeatedly reiterated that message. But perhaps Bush is referring to the counterinsurgency strategy in the later years of his presidency.

Richard Haass was head of policy planning at the State Department at the start of the Bush administration and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The U.S. did very little of anything in Afghanistan during the first Bush term once the Taliban were ousted and the shura convened" that led to creation of the Afghan government, he said. "The problem is we did too little nation-building when we had a window early on (say 2002-3) and then switched to too much war-fighting in late Bush and then Obama."

This brings us back to Biden's comment. After the toppling of the Taliban, he certainly advocated reconstruction aid and funds to help promote democracy, often referring to that as "nation-building." But Jonah Blank, Biden's chief aide on Afghanistan at the time, argues that Biden always viewed that aid through a narrow prism.

"He was never in the mode of 'We can't do any reconstruction, or help the Afghans rebuild,' " Blank said. "His position was always: 'Yes, we've got to help them rebuild - it's both a moral and strategic need. But that's not our primary mission, and shouldn't become our primary mission.' "

Blank recalls that Biden used this line in a speech in January 2002: "We're not talking about turning Kandahar into Paris."

The White House declined to comment.

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Biden's language is sloppy here. Is he referring to nation-building as Bush once did, meaning it was being done by the military? Or is he referring to simply reconstruction and development aid - evoking the phrase when he would knock Bush for not embracing a big aid package?

If Biden was referring to a military role, he's correct that the policy did shift in 2006 - and it was policy that he was deeply skeptical of as Obama's vice president.

But the problem is that he routinely used the phrase "nation-building" to mean something else - and it was something he advocated. So it's disconcerting to hear him claim that nation-building "never made any sense to me." At the very least, there is a period of overlap, between 2006 and 2008, when Biden continued to criticize Bush for not spending enough on reconstruction even as a counterinsurgency strategy was embraced.

It's almost as if Biden and Bush traded positions, with Bush embracing the nation-building he once scorned and Biden rejecting a concept he once touted. It's certainly a muddle. But the distinction in Biden's positions over the years are not clear, so he earns Two Pinocchios.

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