Biden Says U.S. to End ‘Forever War’ by Exiting Afghanistan

President Joe Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, saying it’s “time to end the ‘forever war.’”

Biden said Wednesday the reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are “increasingly unclear” and that only the Afghan people could rebuild their country.

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result,” Biden said from the Treaty Room of the White House. That was the same location former President George W. Bush used to announce the beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan almost two decades ago.

At a visit later Wednesday to a section of Arlington National Cemetery where U.S. troops who lost their lives in the Afghanistan conflict are buried, Biden said the decision to pull out of the conflict was not difficult because the nation had achieved its objectives of bringing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to justice and eliminating a safe haven for terror groups.

“It was absolutely clear,” he said.

The events of the day were intended to underscore the scope of the country’s longest armed conflict. Biden -- who consulted former presidents including Bush before he made his announcement -- said he’s unwilling to pass responsibility for the conflict to another U.S. president.

The September deadline isn’t “conditions-based” and could be completed early, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity Tuesday. The official said Biden’s administration concluded it could address any terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan from elsewhere.

There are currently more than 2,500 U.S. troops in the country, working alongside about 7,000 NATO-led forces.

The new deadline means Biden will leave a few thousand troops in the war-torn country beyond the 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 “tough” to meet given continuing violence in the country and a lack of progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Instead, he said Wednesday that the U.S. would begin its drawdown on May 1.

Biden said that while he didn’t agree with Trump’s approach, “it was an agreement made by the United States government -- and that means something.”

NATO forces will also begin drawing down May 1, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday.

The only U.S. forces remaining in the country after September will be there 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.

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 said a rushed withdrawal could destabilize the country, leaving allied troops at risk and risking a resurgence of terrorist groups. Biden pledged the drawdown would not be “a hasty rush to the exit.”

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said he discussed the U.S. decision with Biden and that his country’s defense forces are “fully capable of defending its people and country.”

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition,” Ghani said on Twitter.

But Afghanistan’s parliament speaker, Mir Rahman Rahmani, warned on Wednesday that the troop withdrawal will lead to a “dangerous civil war and Afghanistan will once again become a geography of international terrorism.”

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, told reporters on Wednesday that he did “not think the world support will end with the announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 9/11.”

Lawmakers React

Biden’s decision was met with mixed reaction on Capitol Hill, with criticism -- and support -- cutting across party lines.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the withdrawal is “dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous.”

“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,” Graham said.

Senator Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he believes the U.S. would need to maintain a presence in the region “for regional stability.” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, tweeted her disappointment with the announcement.

Other lawmakers applauded the decision.

“President Biden recognizes the reality that our continued presence there does not make the U.S. or the world safer,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement. “Year after year, military leaders told Congress and the American people that we were finally turning the corner in Afghanistan, but ultimately we were only turning in a vicious circle.”

And Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told CNN he’s “glad the troops are coming home.”

Biden pledged to “not take our eye off the terrorist threat” but said critics of the move had a decade to test the theory that U.S. troops could stabilize the country - without it paying dividends.

“We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since,” he said.

Taliban Strength

Beyond ousting the Taliban, who were hosting 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 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.

Biden’s 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 that it wouldn’t 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.

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.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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