After nearly 20 years, the United States is nearing its endgame in Afghanistan.
President Biden on Thursday confirmed the U.S. military mission will end on Aug. 31, ahead of his initial Sept. 11 deadline.
In a sign the withdrawal is practically over, the military last week departed Bagram Airfield, the longtime hub of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
But even as the U.S. military presence dwindles, questions linger about post-withdrawal plans, including how over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations will work and the next steps for evacuating thousands of Afghans seeking visas for helping U.S. troops during the war.
Reports of Taliban fighters on the march and Afghan forces in retreat have only heightened fears about Afghanistan’s stability after the final U.S. service members leave the country.
“The optics of the withdrawal have been very troubling just because you have the U.S. not just withdrawing, but expediting its withdrawal, even as the Taliban wages what appear to be unprecedented offenses,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.
While Kugelman does not foresee the Taliban taking over Afghanistan as some have warned, he predicted “the reality is going to be much more murky, but not necessarily any less tragic.”
Biden first announced in April he was ordering a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, setting the stage for the end of America’s longest war.
He originally set the withdrawal deadline to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that first sparked the U.S. invasion, but acknowledged Thursday that the timeline had been accelerated over safety concerns for the remaining troops.
“Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown. And in this context, speed is safety,” Biden said in a speech Thursday.
As the withdrawal has accelerated, so too have reports of Taliban gains.
In a Tuesday update of his tracker of Taliban district control, Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said the insurgents had taken control of 38 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts in the previous six days.
On Wednesday, the Taliban launched an assault on the provincial capital of the western province of Badghis, freeing prisoners and threatening to overrun the city. The following day, the Taliban reportedly took control of a key border crossing with Iran called Islam Qala, shortly after seizures of border crossings with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Amid those Taliban successes, hundreds of Afghan soldiers have reportedly fled to neighboring countries.
The Taliban gains are “a little bit worse” than predicted, “but it's not quite as catastrophic as people are making it out to be,” said Rick Olson, who served as the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2015 to 2016.
“The balance still tips towards the government side, but that could change, and that depends on two factors,” said Olson, now a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace. “The first is political, whether the government holds together and maintains unity that they have actually been showing over the past few weeks. And then the second factor is whether the Afghan armed forces can be sustained, and that's partially a question for the U.S. in terms of whether we get contracting arrangements in place to take care of the air force.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby acknowledged Thursday that Taliban fighters have “taken dozens of district centers” and “mean to threaten provincial centers as well.”
But Biden is staying the course, emphasizing Thursday that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation build.”
“After 20 years, a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health, I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” Biden said.
Biden also argued that the United States accomplished its original mission of degrading the terrorist threat, including killing Osama bin Laden, even as he insisted his speech did not represent a “mission accomplished” moment.
Biden’s East Room address came after U.S. Central Command (Centcom) reported earlier in week the withdrawal from Afghanistan is “more than 90 percent” complete.
Among the few remaining steps that need to be taken, Gen. Scott Miller, head of the U.S. war effort for the past three years, is expected this month to hand over command to Centcom head Gen. Frank McKenzie, who will oversee any remaining efforts in Afghanistan from his headquarters in Florida.
Centcom’s announcement -- the first time it updated the percentage of the withdrawal since announcing it exceeded the halfway mark a month ago -- followed American forces leaving Bagram, a symbolic end to the U.S. involvement in the war.
In Bagram, the United States found a crumbling former Soviet base and transformed it into a mini-city complete with fast food restaurants. For almost 20 years, the base hummed with near-constant flights of U.S. war planes.
After the departure from Bagram, the base’s new Afghan commander complained to The Associated Press and other reporters on the ground that U.S. forces left in the dead of night without a heads up, allowing looters to raid the base.
The Pentagon insists that it coordinated with Afghan officials, including a base walkthrough 48 hours in advance, but Kirby did not directly dispute the commander’s account, saying he “can't speak for how Afghan leadership briefed their people” and that the “exact hour of departure was not divulged for operational security purposes.”
The Biden administration says it will remain engaged in Afghanistan through financial and diplomatic support even after U.S. troops leave, but the Bagram departure has fueled Afghans’ fears otherwise.
“The message about leaving in the middle of the night from Bagram and no clean handover just feeds the narrative in Kabul that Afghans are being abandoned, which I don't think is the intent of U.S. policy,” Olson said.
As the U.S. withdrawal winds down, lawmakers, advocates and others have argued Biden’s most pressing task is to evacuate Afghans who served as interpreters or otherwise helped the United States during the war since their lives are now at risk from the Taliban. The United States has a special visa program for the interpreters, but application processing faces a yearslong backlog.
On Thursday, Biden said relocation flights will begin this month to U.S. facilities outside the continental United States or in third-party countries, but offered few other details of the plan. The Pentagon added later it is working to identify installations that could house the evacuees.
While some commended Biden’s commitment, others said it is too late for generalities.
“For our Afghan allies who face danger and death at the hands of the Taliban, it’s long past time for a vague presidential address that grossly mischaracterizes the threats our Afghan allies face and ignores the urgency required for an evacuation,” Human Rights First’s senior director for government affairs Jennifer Quigley said in a statement.
“The president is right that we must ‘stand with’ the Afghans who put their lives on the line. Today, standing with these allies means immediately evacuating all of them to safety in the United States or one of our territories.”
The administration also continues to negotiate with Turkey about securing the Kabul airport, seen as key for the ability of the United States and other countries to maintain a diplomatic presence after the withdrawal.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Turkish counterpart Wednesday and Thursday, with a Pentagon statement after the second day of the conversation saying the pair “shared views over security concerns and agreed to stay engaged with respect to arrangements at the Hamid Karzai International Airport."
Biden has also insisted the United States will keep any terrorist threats in check after the withdrawal through so-called over-the-horizon capabilities in which forces based outside of Afghanistan could strike a terrorist target in the country.
Pentagon officials have pointed to existing capabilities in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, that could conduct those over-the-horizon operations. But military officials have also stressed the distance from the Gulf to Afghanistan will make counterterrorism more difficult.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met last week with the foreign ministers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two countries that have been floated as potential locations for new basing agreements. Austin also met with the Tajik minister. But Central Asian countries’ relations with Russia make any U.S. basing agreement a heavy lift.