Biden Sets Sept. 11 Target to Pull Forces From Afghanistan
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden will withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that precipitated the American invasion that ousted the country’s Taliban leadership, according to people familiar with the plan.
American forces, in conjunction with troops from NATO allies, will begin withdrawing before the end of this month, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Tuesday. The September deadline isn’t “conditions-based” and could be completed early, the official added.
After a review of U.S. policy that Biden ordered after taking office, the administration concluded it could address any terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan from elsewhere. The official also said the U.S. will work with other countries to protect gains made by women in the country, a major issue given the Taliban largely barred women from education and employment when they were in power.
The new deadline means Biden will leave a few thousand troops in the war-torn country beyond a May 1 target set in an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban last year. Biden had signaled he viewed that original deadline as a “tough” one to meet given continuing violence in the country and a lack of progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The only U.S. forces remaining in the country will be to protect U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan, but the administration still hasn’t decided on the size and scope of its diplomatic presence -- or the accompanying military footprint -- the official said.
The president’s decision, which he’s expected to announce on Wednesday, came after his administration undertook a review of U.S. options in Afghanistan in consultation with allies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also operating in the region. There are currently more than 2,500 U.S. troops in the country, working alongside about 7,000 allied forces.
In delaying the troop removal, Biden risks Taliban-led retaliation for breaking the cease-fire agreement struck during the Trump administration, and political fallout from an American public weary from the two-decade long war. But military and diplomatic leaders had warned a rushed withdrawal could destabilize the country, leaving allied troops at risk and risking a resurgence of terrorist groups.
The U.S. has warned the Taliban that it will respond with force if departing soldiers are attacked, and the Biden administration plans to ramp up humanitarian assistance and support for civil society as troops leave the country, the U.S. official said.
His announcement has thrown into doubt a U.S.-backed peace conference in Istanbul that representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were due to attend from April 24. The Taliban said in a tweet late Tuesday it would not participate. “Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate will not participate in any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan,” wrote Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman from the group’s Doha political office.
Biden’s decision drew immediate criticism from Republicans.
“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. Forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. “It is a retreat and abdication of American leadership.” Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said on Bloomberg Television that “we’re pulling out a a time when the Afghan government and the Afghan army may not be able to hold the country.”
Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it “will mean we are not leaving a residual force” to address the terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan. It would also require “abandoning our Afghan partners during critical peace negotiations and allowing the Taliban a total victory despite their failure to fulfill their commitments under our agreement,” McCaul said.
But Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia backed Biden’s decision, saying in a statement that “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.”
Beyond ousting the Taliban, who were hosting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when the U.S. entered the war, the Pentagon has struggled to sustain gains in Afghanistan over the past two decades. The Taliban are at their strongest since being forced from power, opium production remains high and President Ashraf Ghani’s government has seen its legitimacy erode as it loses control of swaths of the countryside.
Violence has even climbed since peace talks started in September of last year, including targeted killings of journalists, civil society members and politicians. In 2020, 8,820 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded, according to the United Nations.
At a news conference late last month, Biden telegraphed his intentions, saying it would be logistically difficult to withdraw U.S. troops by May, while adding that he couldn’t picture remaining past the end of the year.
“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” Biden said. “Just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out.”
Biden added the withdrawal would be done in a “safe and orderly way.”
A report on worldwide threats issued by U.S. intelligence agencies on Tuesday forecast that “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.”
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