President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all 3,500 US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, ending the longest war in America 20 years after the terrorist attacks that caused it to end for good.
Biden is expected to announce the decision on Wednesday, first reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by Vox. A senior government official told reporters Tuesday that US forces “will begin by May 1 with a proper withdrawal of the remaining forces before May 1 and plan to evacuate all US forces”.
The decision is important. Biden is the fourth president to oversee the war, but if everything goes according to plan he will be the first to end it. This means the end of trillions spent, the American end of a conflict that killed some 2,400 people in the US (excluding the thousands of Afghans) and that has plagued US foreign policy for two decades.
However, Biden did not come to this decision lightly. It is the result of months of policy review that began when he took office. As part of this review, Biden was presented with three broad options for further action in Afghanistan.
The first was to abide by former President Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban that Biden had to withdraw all US forces in Afghanistan by May 1. The second was to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group so that American forces could remain in the country beyond early May. And thirdly, one should defy the Trump-Taliban pact as a whole and continue fighting in Afghanistan without a fixed end date.
Biden chooses the second option, so to speak: to extend America’s presence a few months after the deadline, but without the express consent of the Taliban.
This could be a problem as the Taliban had previously warned that if the US failed to meet the May 1 deadline, it would end its month-long truce with the US and resume attacking American troops. The senior government official told reporters Tuesday that the US would react if the Taliban took action against Americans and highlighted the possibility of retaliation in the coming months.
But with Biden making it clear that there is a fixed date of withdrawal, the Taliban might decide not to attack the US, some experts say, so as not to risk Americans changing their minds. The senior government official said the withdrawal schedule was unconditional, which means the US will leave no matter what happens in the next few months.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), who advised the top US generals in Afghanistan and was a national security advisor in the Obama administration, likes this plan. “I saw what conditions you have,” he told me in an interview after the news broke. “It will put you in a war in Afghanistan for 20 years.”
There is another factor here: the president launched a Hagel-Maria operation to broker a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban before US troops leave. However, that plan ran into a major stumbling block on Monday when the insurgents turned down an offer to attend a meeting with Kabul officials in Istanbul later that week.
Perhaps Biden knows that achieving peace on a shortened timeline wouldn’t work and announces a retreat to get US troops out of the way. “What we are not going to do is use our troops as a negotiating tool for this process,” an unnamed official told the Washington Post.
Most experts believe, however, that Biden realized that after nearly 20 years of war, the US can barely reach the country militarily.
“Biden’s decision to complete a withdrawal that is not tied to improved conditions on the battlefield or at the peace table signals a sense of resignation over the long US intervention,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.
However, he warned: “This could only be the beginning of a whole new chapter in the Afghanistan conflict.”
The US war in Afghanistan ends. Afghanistan’s problems are not.
During the presidential campaign, Biden promised to bring all US “combat troops” back from Afghanistan by the end of his first term. By using the squishy term “combat troops”, he was essentially leaving the door open to keep a small number of troops in the country whose mission would focus solely on counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and Al Qaeda, not the Taliban.
It seems that Biden has given up on that approach. “We will run out of troops by September,” the unnamed senior official told the Post.
Afghan women, youth, activists and elders gather for a rally in support of the peace talks on March 29, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The government is still trying to ensure that groups like al-Qaeda do not use the country to plan attacks against America or its allies, a senior government official told reporters. However, there are plans to reposition America’s “counter-terrorism capabilities” and retain significant assets in the region to counter the possible recurrence of the homeland terrorist threat posed by Afghanistan.
In other words, there will still be US forces in the region keeping an eye on the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, but those forces will not be in Afghanistan itself.
The US will not leave Afghanistan entirely, however. “We are ending our military operations while we focus on diplomatic assistance,” said the official.
Three other important questions remain unanswered before Biden’s Wednesday address.
The first is when all NATO forces will leave the country. The senior government official said that “we will coordinate with NATO allies and partners to withdraw their forces over the same period” – meaning they will also leave Afghanistan before September 11th.
That makes sense because without American firepower, NATO can’t really do much in the country. Furthermore, these forces only really joined the US-led war effort in Afghanistan because the US asked them to, and urged NATO allies to come to the US’s aid after they were attacked on September 11th. So if the US is no longer fighting the war, there is little reason for its allies to stay.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are currently in Brussels, where NATO headquarters are located, explaining Biden’s decision to the Allies.
The second question is what will happen to the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. The US wants to remain a major player in diplomacy, but some analysts say the Taliban will have far less incentive to make concessions to the government if US troops are no longer there to support it. Hence, some experts say the withdrawal will undermine any leverage America left in the war.
Others disagree. “Ultimately, Afghanistan’s future is something Afghans must collectively agree on, and the US military presence is preventing that,” said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on the war with the CNA research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
That leads to the third and most important question: what will happen to the country after America leaves?
The Taliban currently control most of the country – and that is still there with the US military. When the US is gone, the Afghan military and security forces will be much weaker. For this reason, many experts warn that a withdrawal of US troops could very quickly lead to a complete takeover of the country by the Taliban, including the capital Kabul.
If that happened, it would mean fate for millions of Afghans, not least women and children. When the Taliban last ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, they imposed an extreme and extremely brutal form of Islamic government in which women were not only prohibited from working but also from appearing in public without a male guardian and girls from attending school locked out.
Although the Taliban today is not quite the same organization as it was when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, it still seeks to establish some version of Islamic government – and whether the way it governs the areas that are already under their control, one is an indication of what that might look like, the future is likely to be bleak for women.
Afghans will also suffer if the Afghan government, trained for years by the US military, tries to counter the advances made by the Taliban. A worsening civil war will only exacerbate the nation’s many problems.
Biden’s decision to withdraw is therefore not without risk. Republicans, for example, are already blowing up the move. “A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than filth and devilishly dangerous,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “President Biden will essentially have canceled an insurance policy for another 9/11.”
But after two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, in which there is very little to show besides trillions and 2,400 dead, many say it is time for the US to leave.
“This is the right decision,” Rep. Kim told me. “We have to end the war this year.”