Afghanistan is barreling into the unknown after President Biden announced Wednesday that the final 2,500-plus U.S. troops will leave the country by Sept. 11, forcing an already fragile central government in Kabul to soon go toe-to-toe with an emboldened Taliban insurgency that appears eager to exploit a potential power vacuum and to make the American withdrawal as painful as possible.
Mr. Biden made it official with a White House announcement Wednesday, as his top aides consulted with allies about the safest way to head for the exits, ending what is already the longest way in American history.
“It is time for America to come home,” the president said in the White House Treaty Room.
But the announcement, which extends the U.S. mission more than four months past the pullout date set by President Trump in a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, comes fraught with risks.
Washington’s exit plan was immediately endorsed by NATO leaders meeting in Brussels, who said the roughly 7,500 coalition troops from Britain, Poland, Australia and dozens of other nations will follow U.S. forces out of Afghanistan beginning on May 1. Mr. Biden cast the joint moves as overdue, even as the Taliban have shown no signs of giving up the fight against the struggling U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The U.S. military mission began immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has continued for two decades, costing more than 2,400 American lives in the process.
But the bloodshed may not be over. The Taliban on Wednesday vowed that U.S. troops will be “held liable” if they remain past May 1, the withdrawal date set by Mr. Trump and subsequently shunned by Mr. Biden.
There also are indications that the Taliban will accelerate their campaign of violence against Afghan security forces once the backup of U.S. and NATO troops is gone. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stressed Wednesday that his government troops will be “fully capable” of defending their country against the Taliban, though a host of critics — including prominent lawmakers on Capitol Hill — fear Afghanistan will quickly fall back under Taliban control and soon revert to its pre-2001 status as a safe haven for al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist groups.
Still, Mr. Biden framed his decision in a historical context, saying the U.S. has achieved its post-9/11 mission to destroy al Qaeda’s home base in Afghanistan and bring the terrorist group’s leaders, including Osama bin Laden, to justice. He said the U.S. cannot continue the “conditions-based” threshold for withdrawal that he argued would keep American troops in Afghanistan forever.
“I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth,” he said.
“I know there are many who will loudly insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust U.S. military presence to stand as leverage. We gave that argument a decade. It’s never proved effective, not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan and not when we’re down to a few thousand,” Mr. Biden said. “When will be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? Not now? That’s how we got here.”
Mr. Biden said he spoke with former President George W. Bush about the decision, though he did not say whether Mr. Bush agreed with the move. Former President Barack Obama, however, forcefully backed his former vice president, saying in a statement that Mr. Biden “has made the right decision in completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.”
Across the Atlantic, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The three men held a press conference shortly after Mr. Biden’s White House speech, and Mr. Stoltenberg, as expected, said the combat phase of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan would also wind down.
“We went into Afghanistan together. We have adjusted our posture together and we are united in leaving together,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “This is not an easy decision and it entails risk. As I’ve said for many months, we face a dilemma because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops.”
Mr. Blinken called the announcement the “start of a new chapter” for Afghanistan and stressed that America’s diplomatic and humanitarian commitment to the nation will continue long after troops have left.
An ugly exit?
While the 20-year war in Afghanistan now has a firm end date, the U.S. will face a rough road in the short term just getting there.
Taliban leaders insist that their deal with Mr. Trump, known as the Doha agreement, must be followed. The pact called for all American forces to leave Afghanistan by May 1 in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban, including that the group would break all ties with al Qaeda, hold talks with the Afghan government and reduce attacks on Afghan security forces.
Few observers believe the insurgents — who were driven from power in Kabul by the 2001 U.S. invasion — have lived up to their commitments under the deal, but the Islamic fundamentalist group said the U.S. will nonetheless pay a price for violating its terms.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seeks the withdrawal of all foreign forces from our homeland on the date specified in the Doha Agreement. If the agreement is adhered to, a pathway to addressing the remaining issues will also be found,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a post on Twitter.
“If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those whom failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable.”
The Taliban have violated many of their promises under the Doha agreement, but they have abided by a commitment to stop attacking U.S. forces. That’s led to a yearlong stretch in which there has not been a single U.S. combat death in Afghanistan.
With the Taliban seemingly set to once again pick up arms against Americans, U.S. officials vowed to fight back during the withdrawal process.
“The Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal,” Mr. Biden said.
The aftermath of that withdrawal is a major question mark. The Taliban today control roughly as much territory as it has at any point since 9/11. The group controls an estimated 76 districts across the country, compared with 127 under Afghan government control and 194 that are in dispute, according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
While some Afghan officials have expressed doubts about the looming American exit, Mr. Ghani insisted he is on board with the plan and believes his security forces will hold their own against the Taliban.
“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition,” he wrote in a series of Twitter posts. “As we move into the next phase in our partnership, we will continue to work with our US/NATO partners in the ongoing peace efforts. Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful.”
The Afghan president’s words did not shield Mr. Biden from a fresh torrent on criticism from Capitol Hill and from some prominent former military leaders, even as many conceded Mr. Biden was choosing from a range of uniformly bad options.
“While the American people are understandably weary after two decades of war, any move to draw down our military presence in Afghanistan should be based on conditions on the ground, not in accordance with an arbitrary date,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican. “I believe the president’s decision is ill-advised and disappointing. … This rushed and arbitrary withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan fails to guarantee America’s safety and also endangers the brave men and women currently stationed there.”
Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who served for a time as commander of the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, said in comments reported by the online military news website Defense One, “I’m really afraid that we’re going to look back two years from now and regret the decision.
“I don’t see how you withdraw and maintain the capabilities that one would like to have there still” to contain the Taliban and other radical groups, he said. “Frankly, we’re also going to lose that platform that Afghanistan provides for the kind of regional counterterrorism campaign.”
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