Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first news conference as Pentagon chief, said Friday that progress toward peace in Afghanistan and an end to U.S. military involvement there depends on the Taliban reducing attacks. (Feb. 19) AP Domestic
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to pull all military forces out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending U.S. presence in the Middle Eastern nation by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that spurred America’s longest war.
The move will extend military presence in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 withdrawal date previously negotiated by former President Donald Trump.
Concluding there is “no military solution” for the problems in Afghanistan, Biden will instead work to put the “full weight” of the U.S. government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government, a senior administration official said.
“But what we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process,” said the official, who agreed to brief reporters on the plans Tuesday on the condition of anonymity.
Biden will formally announce the withdrawal and other specifics in a White House speech Wednesday detailing “the way forward in Afghanistan,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.
The drawdown of the more than 3,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan will begin before May 1 in coordination with NATO allies and the withdrawal of their troops which number around 7,000. The Biden administration warned the Taliban that any attacks on the U.S. during the withdrawal will be met with a forceful response, according to the White House.
The al-Qaeda terrorist network no longer possesses the capability to plot an attack that would threaten U.S. soil, the White House said, insisting Biden isn’t taking an eye off terrorism. The administration instead views the terrorism threat more broadly – spanning to other countries and regions like Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Northern Africa – and not concentrated in Afghanistan like 20 years ago.
The White House said Biden will also seek “diplomatic, economic and humanitarian tools” with other countries to protect recent civil rights gained by Afghan women.
“He has to make decisions through the prism of what’s in the interest of the national security of the United States,” Psaki said when pressed on concerns that Afghan women could lose their progress under a U.S. exit. She said that means “keeping our focus” on where emerging threats are around the world.
The Washington Post first reported Biden’s planned withdrawal.
Like Trump, Biden campaigned on a promise to end America’s “forever wars.” The conflict in Afghanistan – which sought to establish democratic governance, defeat al-Qaeda and push the Taliban out of power – has cost more than $2 trillion and more than 2,300 American lives. More than 38,000 Afghan civilians have been killed.
Republicans, many who criticized Trump’s plans to leave Afghanistan, quickly slammed Biden’s timeline. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said it would be a “grave mistake” and an “abdication of American leadership.”
“It would put our NATO partners in a shared fight that we have not yet won. It would abandon the women of Afghanistan whose freedoms and human rights will be in peril. It did not have to unfold like this.”
Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee raised concerns as well. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, the committee’s chairman, said he hadn’t been briefed by the White House on the withdrawal. He said he wouldn’t support future assistance to Afghanistan if there’s “backsliding” on “civil society” and rights for women under the Taliban after the U.S. withdraws.
He also expressed hesitation about leaving Afghanistan before achieving America’s objectives after “so much blood and national treasure.”
“I want to hear the administration’s rationale for it. I think the view is we don’t have enough troops there to change the tide and make some dramatic difference. So if we’re not going to do that, then why keep the troops that are there and put them at risk?”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, another Democratic ally of Biden and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she is “very disappointed” by the decsion. She said “the U.S. has sacrificed too much” to leave without assurances of a secure future in Afghanistan.
“It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women,” she said, adding that she urges the Biden administration “make every effort between now and September” to protect the progress that has been made.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were in Brussels Tuesday to notify NATO allies of the decision. Biden also consulted with his Cabinet, members of Congress, the Afghan government and other global allies, the White House said.
Al-Qaeda used Afghanistan, under control of the Taliban, as a safe haven from which to plan the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
But instead of being driven out by military force, the Taliban now control vast swaths of the country, and it continues to be wracked by violence despite U.S.-brokered peace talks. Many experts say the situation in Afghanistan will not improve no matter how much longer the United States stays, or how much more money Washington invests.
A U.S. Intelligence report released Tuesday gave a bleak outlook of the immediate future for Afghanistan, predicting the “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year.”
“The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” the assessment said.
Biden had faced increasing pressure on whether to stick to Trump’s May 1 deadline to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Some of Biden’s key allies in Congress have warned a complete U.S. withdrawal would thrust Afghanistan further into chaos and violence. Others have said keeping U.S. troops on the ground any longer could spark a backlash among progressives who want to see an end to the war in Afghanistan.
Last month, the president said that even if the U.S. did not meet the May 1 deadline, U.S. troops would not be in Afghanistan for much longer.
The previous May 1 timetable was part of an agreement the Trump administration forged with the Taliban in February 2020. Under that deal, the U.S. agreed to withdraw all its forces; in exchange, the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaeda and end its attacks on American forces.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen
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