WASHINGTON — President Biden announced Wednesday that American troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, nearly two decades after the U.S. invaded the country in response to al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Biden said, speaking from the Treaty Room in the White House, the same location where President George W. Bush first announced airstrikes in Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2001. “It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.”
Biden said he spoke to Bush on Tuesday night to alert him of the White House’s decision to withdraw. Biden said the two are “absolutely united” in their “respect and support” of U.S. forces.
The decision to end the so-called forever war in Afghanistan by withdrawing U.S. troops — a reversal from Biden's previously stated preference to keep a small presence in the country for security purposes — is scheduled ahead of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a main justification for the original invasion. Biden concluded that the U.S. objective to prevent further attacks on the homeland had been successful and that it was time to leave.
The president made the decision to leave after extensive consultations with allies, including from NATO, whose troops rely heavily on American security presence as well as airlift capabilities in Afghanistan. “We’ll not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” Biden continued.
Biden inherited the war in Afghanistan from three previous presidents, most recently Donald Trump, whose administration made a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, last year for U.S. troops to leave the region by May 1. The Biden administration did not see that timeline as realistic, particularly because of the challenges of coordinating the withdrawal.
“It’s perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself, but it’s an agreement negotiated by the U.S. government,” said Biden. “That means something.”
According to a senior administration official who previewed the announcement for reporters on a call Tuesday afternoon, the withdrawal will not have conditions on the Taliban. After departing Afghanistan, the U.S. will continue to participate and assist in ongoing diplomatic negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
“While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue. We will continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” Biden said. “Along with our partners, we are training and equipping nearly 300,000 personnel. And they continue to fight valiantly on behalf of their country and defend the Afghan people, at great cost.”
However, it’s unclear what leverage the U.S. government plans to exercise in those negotiations, or how it plans to guarantee the security and stability of the Afghan government.
Biden said the administration would be determining “over the next few months ... what a continued diplomatic presence would look like.” He said he was aware that skeptics will “insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust U.S. military presence to stand as leverage.”
“We’ve given that argument a decade,” he said. “It’s never proven effective.”
Critics of the decision to withdraw, including some Democrats, speculate that a full American retreat will allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorists, enabling the Taliban to take full control of the country.
“I’m very disappointed in the President’s decision to set a September deadline to walk away from Afghanistan. Although this decision was made in coordination with our allies, the U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave without verifiable assurances of a secure future,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote in a statement.
“It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women. I urge the Biden administration to make every effort between now and September to safeguard the progress made and support our partners in the formation of an inclusive, transitional government,” she continued.
However, advocates for the withdrawal and for an end to the war celebrated Biden’s decision and concluded it was a long time coming.
“Removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan is imperative to creating the opportunity for peace in the region and is a step forward in adopting foreign policy rooted in sustainable diplomacy and aid,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the progressive think tank the Quincy Institute, wrote in a statement.
Weinstein, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, has been a strong advocate of troops leaving by May.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive congressman who has consistently spoken out about American intervention in the Middle East, also praised Biden’s decision as politically brave and necessary. “I applaud President Biden for achieving an impossibility here in Washington: ending a forever war,” the California Democrat wrote in a statement.
One question that remains unanswered is the Biden administration’s plan to free an American hostage held by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, civil engineer Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped about a month before the Trump-era peace deal was signed.
The Trump administration faced criticism for leaving Frerichs behind after concluding the peace deal in Doha, and the Biden administration could face questions as well.
Advocates for Frerich’s release have been pushing the administration to look at options to free him, including a possible exchange for an Afghan held in a U.S.prison.
A former national security official who worked on Afghanistan policy told Yahoo News they hoped Frerichs doesn’t become “the Bob Levinson of Afghanistan,” referring to the long-held and now presumed dead hostage in Iran. “We take pride in saying we don’t leave people behind, but Frerichs was not mentioned in the president’s remarks.”
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