While the Taliban has vowed to renew attacks on U.S. and NATO personnel if foreign troops are not out by the deadline, it is not clear if the militants will follow through with those threats given Biden’s plan for a phased withdrawal between now and September.
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Officially, there are 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, although the number fluctuates and is currently about 1,000 more than that. There are also up to an additional 7,000 foreign forces in the coalition there, the majority of them NATO troops.
Biden’s decision comes after an administration review of U.S. options in Afghanistan, where U.S.-midwived peace talks have failed to advance as hoped and the Taliban remains a potent force despite two decades of effort by the United States to defeat the militants and establish stable, democratic governance. The war has cost trillions of dollars in addition to the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. service members and at least 100,000 Afghan civilians.
“This is the immediate, practical reality that our policy review discovered,” the person familiar with the deliberations said. “If we break the May 1st deadline negotiated by the previous administration with no clear plan to exit, we will be back at war with the Taliban, and that was not something President Biden believed was in the national interest.”
“We’re going to zero troops by September.”
The decision highlights the trade-offs the Biden administration is willing to make to shift the U.S. global focus away from the counterinsurgency campaigns that dominated the post-9/11 world to current priorities, including increasing military competition with China.
“Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point,” the person said. “That does not mean we’re turning away from Afghanistan. We are going to remain committed to the government, remain committed diplomatically. But in terms of where we will be investing force posture, our blood and treasure, we believe that other priorities merit that investment.”
In addition to major domestic challenges, “the reality is that the United States has big strategic interests in the world,” the person said, “like nonproliferation, like an increasingly aggressive and assertive Russia, like North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear programs pose a threat to the United States,” as well as China. “The main threats to the American homeland are actually from other places: from Africa, from parts of the Middle East — Syria and Yemen.”
Some officials have warned that a U.S. exit will lead to the collapse of the Kabul government while jeopardizing gains made over the past two decades in health, education and women’s rights.
Biden administration officials say the United States intends to remain closely involved in the peace process and will continue to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to the Afghan government and security forces, which remains almost totally dependent on foreign support.
“What we won’t do is use our troops as a bargaining chip in that process,” the person familiar with the plans said.
The White House declined to comment on withdrawal plans.
The person familiar with the plans said the United States had gone to Afghanistan in 2001 “for a particular purpose: to deliver justice to those who attacked us on September 11th and to disrupt terrorists seeking to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to attack the United States. We achieved that objective some years ago.”
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“For that reason the president made the determination … that the best path forward to advance American interests is ending this war after 20 years so we can address the global threat picture as it exists today,” the person added.
Biden, who argued unsuccessfully during the Obama administration for a small, counterterrorism-focused presence, had already hinted that the United States would remain for only a limited time beyond the May 1 deadline.
Late last month, he said he did not expect U.S. troops to be deployed there next year. “We will leave,” he said at a White House news conference. “But the question is when we leave.”
Administration officials were in the process of notifying officials in NATO nations as well as Afghan officials and the Taliban on Tuesday. In an early morning tweet, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appeared still to be uninformed. He said he had spoken with Secretary of State Antony Blinken about “the ongoing peace process,” and about “an upcoming call” with Biden.
It was not immediately clear when NATO countries would withdraw troops but the person familiar with the plans suggested they would coordinate their withdrawals with the U.S. departure. Many of those governments have said they have no desire or ability to remain without the logistical, security and other support the U.S. forces provide.
Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are in Brussels Tuesday and Wednesday informing their NATO counterparts. Germany has the second largest force in Afghanistan, numbering more than 1,000. Officials there have cautioned that they would need months to organize an orderly departure.
In early March, Blinken launched a last-ditch diplomatic effort to bring the Taliban and the Afghan government together to end the war with an interim power-sharing arrangement. He warned Ghani in a sharply-worded letter that time was growing short.
While the inter-Afghan talks began in September, they have made little progress. At the same time, the Taliban has increased its attacks on Afghan troops and expanded its territorial control. As the new administration launched its review, the Pentagon and the United Nations reported that the militants had not complied with their commitments under the Trump agreement.
The hope was to accelerate a negotiating process begun under President Donald Trump in 2019, when White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad started talks with militant leaders in Doha, the capital of Qatar. That led to a February 2020 agreement signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo under which the United States pledged to withdraw its forces by May 1, 2021, in exchange for Taliban severance of all ties with al-Qaeda, and agreement to begin negotiations with the Afghan government toward a cease-fire and peace accord.
Many Afghan experts have concluded that the Taliban are moving closer to a military victory, but that they may be reluctant to take over as a pariah government, which could result in a loss of international support and aid for the country.
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Biden’s choice was a stark one. With U.S. public opinion and a significant, bipartisan portion of Congress pressing for withdrawal, staying could lead to political difficulties at home and renewed Taliban attacks on U.S. forces. At the same time, an abrupt American departure could undermine any achievements made in the past two decades, reduce the possibility of a peace deal and lead to a Taliban takeover.
NATO members, and some U.S. lawmakers, warned against an early departure. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in late February that a swift pullout would be “challenging” and “destabilizing.”
John Sopko, the Department of Defense’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned Congress last month that U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement in place would be “a disaster,” and mean government collapse. Others have warned of civil war, as regional warlords have amassed and armed their own forces.
Blinken’s warning to Ghani, along with the interim government proposal, seemed to have little effect. He called for a conference of Taliban and Afghan leaders to take place in Turkey this month, and a U.N.-convened meeting of regional governments, including Iran, along with the United States, to push diplomacy.
So far, none of those initiatives have borne fruit. The meetings have been repeatedly postponed, and Khalilzad’s shuttle diplomacy among the Afghans and with regional leaders have yet to bring the two sides together in agreement.
The person familiar with the administration’s deliberations rejected the suggestion that these apparent failures precipitated Biden’s decision. The United States, the person said, would continue its diplomatic efforts to bring peace. But time had proven that the presence of U.S. troops, even at much higher levels, was not effective leverage at moving the parties beyond where they have been willing to go, he said.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), one of the very few lawmakers who were informed Monday of Biden’s decision, tentatively supported the move, but said Congress would need a full accounting of plans to secure U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan and ensure that global extremists from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are unable to gain renewed strength.
The person familiar with the plans said some U.S. counterterrorism assets would be repositioned outside of Afghanistan, and the United States would remain capable of striking extremist groups there.
Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who served in senior security positions under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said a Taliban takeover of the country was a “distinct possibility.” In that case, she said, the administration had to guarantee the Taliban live up to global standards before recognizing a government and lifting sanctions on them, and ensure that “they don’t, en masse, kick women out of school, and walk us back 20 years in human rights.”
But “I think we have to make decisions based on America’s strategic interests not anybody else’s,” Slotkin said. “While no one wants to feel like the investment we made there was for little or nothing, that doesn’t mean we get to stay there for another 20 years on a wing and a prayer that we can turn it into a viable, healthy state.”
Retired Gen. Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, said the decision to leave was overdue.
“I wouldn’t say enough is enough,” said Powell, who was in charge of Bush’s State Department during the 9/11 attacks and the beginning of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “I’d say we’ve done all we can do … What are those troops being told they’re there for? It’s time to bring it to an end.”
The Soviet Union, which occupied Afghanistan for a decade until it abruptly withdrew in 1989, “did it the same way,” Powell said. “They got tired, and they marched out and back home. How long did anybody remember that?”