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Biden Announces Afghanistan Withdrawal: ‘Time to End the Forever War’

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 4/14/2021 Paul D. Shinkman
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool) © (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AP) President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Keeping American forces in Afghanistan in an attempt to force a negotiated peace there is not a realistic proposition, President Joe Biden has concluded, telling the American people in a high-profile speech Wednesday afternoon that all U.S. troops will be home by Sept. 11.

Biden's decision, first reported on Tuesday, has spurred widespread outrage from veterans, congressional leaders and reportedly from some of his own advisers. But on Wednesday he cast the decision ultimately in simple terms: "(Osama) bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaida is degraded ... in Afghanistan. And it's time to end the forever war."

The dramatic move marks at least the third time American presidents have tried to extract U.S. forces from the intractable conflict zone, which began 20 years ago this October. Biden was among the strongest supporters for leaving while he was vice president to then-President Barack Obama, whose own decision to draw down completely by the end of 2014 did not endure the worsening security situation on the ground there.

More recently, President Donald Trump signed a partially secret deal with the Taliban in February 2020 calling for all U.S. forces to withdraw by May 1 this year – a narrow timeline for the subsequent U.S. administration that Biden lamented on Wednesday, but acknowledged as "duly negotiated."

"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting different results," Biden said. "I'm now the fourth U.S. president to preside over a troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth."

Opposition to Biden's move has been sharp, centering on fears that whatever gains the U.S. achieved in Afghanistan – both for its civil society and American homeland security – will collapse without a military presence there. "Beyond the significant implications for the Afghan people, it will be harder to protect our interests related to combatting terrorism without something on the ground or arrangements that allow us to respond in a timely and effective manner," retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, one of the first commanders on the ground in the war who ultimately oversaw all U.S. conflicts in the Middle East, told U.S. News on Tuesday.

In his remarks Wednesday, Biden mentioned he had spoken with former President George W. Bush about this decision to end the war he started. Biden said he and Bush agreed on the need to respect members of the U.S. armed forces, but he did not indicate whether the 43rd president supported his decision. In a statement posted to Twitter moments after Biden’s remarks, Obama said he supported the decision, adding, “It’s time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily.”

The Biden administration and its partners have offered a positive assessment of the security realities in Afghanistan and the need for a U.S. presence there going forward.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels, alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, said in a press conference moments after Biden's remarks that the U.S. will "continue to support the government of Afghanistan ... and keep investing in the well being of the Afghan people," including women and girls.

Earlier on Wednesday, CIA Director William Burns told a congressional panel that any terrorist threat in Afghanistan does not currently have the capability to attack the U.S. He added that the CIA "and all our partners in the U.S. government will retain a suite of capabilities – some of them remaining in place, some of them we'll generate – that can help us anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort," by terrorist groups.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, long torn between the unyielding Taliban violence that his troops face and the political desires of his American patrons, said shortly before Biden's speech that the two spoke earlier on Wednesday.

"Afghanistan's proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful," Ghani said in a series of tweets.

That assessment, while optimistic, does not match the reality on the ground for a fledgling force that has not yet proven it can fight without extensive U.S. medical aid, intelligence and close air support. Austin, a former Army general who commanded troops in Afghanistan and the Middle East, offered a less assertive appraisal in his remarks at NATO, saying the Afghan forces are "better and more capable" of supporting themselves.

Biden in his speech cited failed NATO agreements, including one in 2014 that was supposed to yield an Afghan National Defense and Security Forces capable of defending themselves, which ultimately did not materialize, he said.

"That's how we got here, and this moment, there's a significant downside risk to staying beyond May 1 without a clear timetable for departure," he said.

His decision came down to the primary questions, he said: What conditions will allow the U.S. to depart? By what means and by how long would it take to achieve them, if it could be achieved at all? What additional cost of lives and treasure?

"I've not heard any good answers to these questions," Biden said. "And if you cannot answer them, in my view, you should not stay."

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