- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2021

All U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by this summer’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Biden announced Tuesday, potentially putting American forces at risk of renewed Taliban attacks in the short run while sparking long-term fears that the country may once again become a breeding ground for terrorists.

The White House surprise announcement puts an end date on the longest war in American history, but leaves a host of unanswered military, diplomatic and political questions in its wake. The war is proving divisive to the end, with Mr. Biden getting both praise and sharp criticism on Capitol Hill Tuesday over the decision to announce a set pullout date.

Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by Sept. 11 — 20 years to the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to America’s invasion of Afghanistan in the first place — ends months of speculation about whether the commander in chief would honor a May 1 exit date laid out by predecessor Donald Trump. Mr. Trump struck a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that offered a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban and a promise to cut a power-sharing deal with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

Virtually all observers believe that the Taliban has so far failed to live up to its promises under the deal. While no longer directly attacking U.S. and allied forces, the radical Islamist group has accelerated its war on Afghan security forces, and Pentagon assessments have found that members of the group still have a working relationship with al Qaeda. 

ISIS and al Qaeda both still have significant presences inside Afghanistan and much of the country outside of the major cities is no longer under the control of the Kabul government. Even as White House officials were previewing Mr. Biden’s plan Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that a suicide car bombing killed at least three civilians in Afghanistan’s Farah province, and at least 10 government security troops were killed in fighting in the country’s north.

But Mr. Biden seems to have made a decision to essentially disregard those factors and to set aside the broader situation on the ground in Afghanistan, instead aiming to fulfill the campaign promise and foreign policy goal he shared with Mr. Trump: to finally end a war critics say no longer has a clear rationale or popular support.

“This is not conditions-based. The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday.

Officials also signaled they’re fully aware of the Taliban’s most recent threats. The insurgent group has said that the U.S. must abide by the February 2020 peace deal and remove all troops by May 1. If not, the Taliban warned, American personnel will face a fresh wave of violence.

Officials suggested the U.S. is ready to fight even as American troops begin to pack their bags.

“We have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on U.S. troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response,” the administration official said.

The American exit also will essentially end NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission in Afghanistan. While the long-running effort was led by the U.S., there are about 7,500 troops from Britain, Australia, Poland, Turkey and dozens of other nations still serving in Afghanistan. NATO officials have cautioned against a hasty U.S. withdrawal but also have made clear that the future of the Afghanistan mission hinges on Mr. Biden’s decision.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other administration officials reportedly spoke with NATO leaders Tuesday to brief them on Mr. Biden’s plan, which is expected to be formally unveiled Wednesday at the White House.

‘Dumber than dirt’

Back at home, some Democrats celebrated the announcement while others took a more cautious approach. Republicans, however, almost universally eviscerated the decision and said that Mr. Biden has opened the door to disaster with a full, unconditional pullout.

“A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous. President Biden will have, in essence, cancelled an insurance policy against another 9/11,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a statement. “A residual counterterrorism force would be an insurance policy against the rise of radical Islam in Afghanistan that could pave the way for another attack against our homeland or our allies.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the plan a “grave mistake,” while Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration is handing the Taliban a “total victory.”

Congressional Republicans zeroed in on the idea that the Pentagon could and should maintain a small counterterrorism force inside Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Indeed, some analysts argue that even as the Pentagon shifts its focus from the Middle East to the long-term threat posed by China, there are few practical reasons why several thousand special operations forces cannot remain in Afghanistan.

“Yes, China is the top threat. But are we really saying that America as a great power cannot afford to keep 2,500-5,000 troops in Afghanistan to support the Afghan government, conduct [counterterrorism] operations, and prevent another 9/11 attack on our country?” Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote on Twitter.

While some 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, the Pentagon has not recorded a single American combat death in Afghanistan since Mr. Trump reached the deal with the Taliban in February 2020 — 14 months ago.

Supporters of the withdrawal, however, say that Mr. Biden is sending a long-overdue message and rightly realigning U.S. national security interests in a changing global threat landscape. 

“After 20 years, thousands of lives lost, and trillions of dollars spent, we are finally bringing home our troops from Afghanistan. President Biden campaigned on this popular policy and is now delivering on that promise,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat.

Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, suggested that the U.S. has done virtually all it can be expected to do in Afghanistan, noting that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 attacks planned from an Afghan hideout, was located and killed — in Pakistan — a decade ago.

“We stayed an additional 10 years to help train Afghan security forces and create conditions for a more stable future in that country,” the Virginia Democrat said in a statement. “It is now time to bring our troops home, maintain humanitarian and diplomatic support for a partner nation, and refocus American national security on the most pressing challenges we face.”

New negotiations

Without U.S. troops on the ground, it’s unclear how influential American diplomatic support will be. Afghan government officials already are bracing for the unknown amid fears that the Taliban will eventually overrun the entire nation.

“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” a senior Afghan government source told the al Jazeera news network, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate public reaction from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, though he said on Twitter earlier Tuesday he will soon speak with Mr. Biden by phone. Mr. Ghani also said he spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier in the day, though that conversation seems to have taken place before the looming withdrawal was made public.

The Sept. 11 exit date was first reported by The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government and other regional power players are still clinging to the hope that negotiations can produce lasting peace in the country. Afghanistan is one of those rare foreign policy problems in which many of the major players — the U.S., Russia, China and Iran — are ready to back any plausible political deal that promises a measure of stability for one of the word’s poorest nations.

The U.S.-Taliban pact, informally known as the Doha agreement, called for direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The two sides have held multiple rounds of talks in recent months, though little tangible progress has been made.

The Biden administration has been circulating its own revised peace accord in recent weeks, but has yet to see any support from either the Taliban or the Ghani government.

The Turkish government announced Tuesday that it will hold a 10-day Afghan peace conference in Istanbul from April 24 to May 4, and Turkish officials said that both the Afghan government and Taliban would send representatives. Officials from the United Nations and Qatar also are expected to attend.

But it’s unclear whether the Taliban will actually show up. The group previously has rejected an invitation to the Istanbul meeting. 

While the Taliban did not immediately respond to the White House announcement, the group wrote on its website Tuesday that all foreign meddling in Afghanistan must end.

“Afghans do not desire the elimination of military aggression alone, but also the termination of Western political, cultural and ideological invasion,” the Taliban said. “Therefore, it is the responsibility of Afghanistan’s political circles that they attempt to solve matters in a way suitable to the aspirations of the Afghan people. If, God forbid, past failures are experimented with again and the strategies of foreigners given precedence, then the accountability of this world and the hereafter will be harsh.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide