President Biden on Wednesday laid out his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end America’s longest war by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that spurred the conflict.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” Biden said during a speech delivered in the Treaty Room of the White House, where former President George W. Bush announced the start of the war. “It’s time to end the forever war.”
Biden’s deadline, if adhered to, would bring to a close a chapter of U.S. history that saw more than 2,300 troops killed in combat and has cost the country as much as $1 trillion.
“I believed that our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that, we accomplished that objective,” Biden said. “I've concluded that it's time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home.”
Biden argued the reasons for keeping a U.S. military presence in the war-torn country have become “increasingly unclear” as the terrorist threat has become more dispersed over recent years.
The president stressed that the U.S. would execute the withdrawal plans in coordination with allies and partners and would continue to provide humanitarian assistance and support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In announcing a withdrawal by September, Biden is pushing back a May 1 deadline that was set in an agreement with the Taliban signed last year by the Trump administration.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Taliban were supposed to uphold certain commitments including denying safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists intent on attacking the West and reducing attacks on Afghan forces.
U.S. military officials have repeatedly said the Taliban have yet to meet their ends of the deal. But Biden said Wednesday the United States “will hold the Taliban accountable towards commitment not to allow any terrorist to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil.”
While the Taliban have increased attacks on Afghan forces since last year’s agreement, they have largely refrained from attacks on U.S. and NATO troops.
But the group issued a warning Wednesday that failure to withdraw by the May 1 deadline in last year’s deal would cause “problems.”
“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,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted.
Biden issued his own warning to the Taliban, saying the insurgents “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."
Biden, who consulted Bush and former President Obama on Tuesday regarding his plans, sought to rebuff criticisms of his withdrawal announcement.
“I know there will be 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,” Biden said. “Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way.”
The president argued that the U.S. must focus on the current challenges of disrupting terror networks and operations across the globe, competing with China, strengthening alliances and defeating the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” he said.
Biden’s withdrawal, which was first disclosed on Tuesday, has divided members of Congress, with some Republicans and Democrats criticizing the decision and the warning about the potential for conditions to worsen should the U.S. remove forces too quickly.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Biden arrived at the decision following close consultations with his national security team, who made what she described as a “clear-eyed” assessment to him of the situation.
“As a part of this process, the president asked for a review from his national security team. He asked them not to sugar coat it. He welcomed ideas, welcomed different points of view and he was provided with a clear-eyed assessment about the best path forward,” she said.
Both former Presidents Trump and Obama sought to pull the United States out of Afghanistan, but were thwarted by bipartisan opposition and warnings from military advisers of dire consequences.
Psaki indicated that Biden is unlikely to diverge from his plans even if the conditions in Afghanistan worsen, saying he “remains committed” to his timeline.
“The president made this decision after close consultations and close discussion with and taking into account all of the difficult factors … around that decision,” she said.
Among the calls Biden placed ahead of his speech was one to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. A White House statement on the call said the leaders discussed “their continued commitment to a strong bilateral partnership following the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and affirmed shared respect and gratitude for the sacrifices made by American forces, alongside NATO allies and operational partners, as well as by the Afghan people and Afghan service members over the past two decades.”
Ghani said Wednesday he “respects” the U.S. decision following the call with Biden, adding Afghanistan will “work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition.”
“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,” he added in a series of tweets, in which he also insisted that “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country.”
But U.S. military and intelligence officials have a decidedly more dismal view of Afghan forces’ capabilities without American support. U.S. Special Operations Command chief Gen. Richard Clarke last month said U.S. military support is “critical to their success,” while an intelligence report released Tuesday said the Afghan government “will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
CIA Director William Burns also told senators Wednesday the U.S. ability to collect intelligence on threats in Afghanistan will “diminish” with a U.S. military withdrawal.
While terrorist groups elsewhere in the world represent “much more serious threats today” than those in Afghanistan, Burns said, the Afghan branches of al Qaeda and ISIS “remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets.”
“So all of that, to be honest, means that there is a significant risk once the U.S. military and the coalition militaries withdraw,” Burns said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing hours before Biden’s speech.
Biden appeared to allude to those concerns in his speech, saying his “team is refining our national strategy to monitor and disrupt significant terrorist threats, not only in Afghanistan, but anywhere they may arise, and they're in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.”
In addition to the 2,500 U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan, about 7,000 from NATO countries are there. In a statement after Biden’s speech, NATO’S North Atlantic Council said those troops would also be withdrawing.
“NATO assembled one of the largest coalitions in history to serve in Afghanistan. Our troops went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted together, and now we are leaving together,” the statement said.
NATO also insisted allies “will continue to stand with Afghanistan, its people, and its institutions in promoting security and upholding the gains of the last 20 years.”