WHITE HOUSE – Declaring that “war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that “it is time to end the forever war” and said he would withdraw all U.S. troops from that country by Sept. 11.
Biden, in a televised speech, said the United States could no longer justify staying there two decades after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said at the White House. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”
Biden spoke in the Treaty Room, the same place where, on Oct. 7, 2001, then-President George W. Bush announced airstrikes on Afghanistan.
“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. “American troops shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips between warring parties in other countries.”
The U.S. leader said he was the fourth president to oversee an American troop presence in Afghanistan — among two Republicans and two Democrats — and vowed to not pass the responsibility to a fifth.
Biden, announcing the withdrawal would begin May 1, added that the United States would continue its diplomatic and humanitarian work in Afghanistan and “we will continue to support the government of Afghanistan.”
The president, amid widespread concern his decision will lead to a wider civil war in Afghanistan, also said Washington and its allies would support training and help equip nearly 300,000 Afghan forces, as well as support peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters.
He also called on countries in the region, especially Pakistan but also China, India, Russia and Turkey, to do more to support Afghanistan.
The way forward
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said that he spoke to Biden in the hours prior to the official announcement and that his government “respects the U.S. decision and will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition.”
On Twitter, Ghani added that Afghanistan’s 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.”
Following his remarks, Biden headed to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where service members who died in America’s most recent wars are buried.
“Look at them all,” the president said amid the rows of headstones.
Asked by a reporter if the withdrawal decision was a hard one to make, Biden replied: “No. To me, it was absolutely clear.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the withdrawal plans with NATO allies, said the United States remained committed to Afghanistan’s future.
“Let me be clear, even with our troops home, we as an alliance, and the United States as a country, will continue to invest in and support the Afghan people and their chosen leaders,” Blinken told reporters following talks with NATO’s secretary-general. “We will also remain vigilant against any possibility that the threat of terrorism reemerges in Afghanistan.”
Biden’s decision will keep 3,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline that had been agreed to in a deal Washington negotiated in Doha, Qatar, last year with the Taliban when Donald Trump was U.S. president.
The spokesman for the secretary-general of the United Nations declined on Wednesday to endorse Biden’s decision.
“We are not going to comment on military decisions. The U.N.’s focus remains on finding a political accord, on finding an accord that will be good for the people of Afghanistan,” said Stephane Dujarric.
The Taliban on Wednesday said they wanted all foreign forces out of Afghanistan “on the date specified in the Doha Agreement,” and that “if the agreement is adhered to, a pathway to addressing the remaining issues will also be found.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid added on Twitter, “If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those [who] failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable.”
News of the U.S. troop withdrawal plans had already prompted the Taliban to cancel participation in a 10-day peace conference between Afghanistan’s warring sides later this month in Turkey.
Biden warned the Taliban that if “they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.”
Meanwhile, a pessimistic U.S. intelligence report predicted that a peace deal was unlikely in the next year and that the Taliban — an enemy of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan — would make battlefield gains.
“The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” said an unclassified version of the report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The U.S. ability to collect intelligence and act on threats will diminish when American troops leave Afghanistan, CIA Director William Burns testified Wednesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” said Burns, adding that the United States would however retain “a suite of capabilities.”
Several prominent senators of the opposition Republican Party assailed Biden’s troop withdrawal decision.
“Apparently, we’re to help our adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by gift-wrapping the country and handing it back to them,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said early Wednesday on the Senate floor.
“I beg you, President Biden, reevaluate this. Don’t lock yourself in, because things are going to change quickly in Afghanistan for the worse,” Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters following Biden’s speech. “This is not going to end well for us.”
Biden’s decision won praise from those who believe the United States is no closer to winning the war today than it was more than a decade ago or will be in the future.
Obama: ‘Right decision’
“President Biden has made the right decision in completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan,” said former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president. “There will be very difficult challenges and further hardship ahead in Afghanistan, and the U.S. must remain engaged diplomatically and through our development efforts to support the Afghan people, particularly those who have taken extraordinary risks on behalf of human rights.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the “previous approach of maintaining thousands of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan has not led to a resolution, and a new approach is required.”
Some analysts viewed Biden’s decision as the best of an array of bad options.
“There’s probably no option that significantly reduces the level of violence. There’s also probably no option on the table to build the Afghanistan that the United States probably had in mind when they invested more than a trillion dollars in the war,” said University of Chicago assistant professor Austin Wright, whose research focuses on insurgents and Afghanistan.
Margaret Besheer at the United Nations, national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Ayaz Gul in Islamabad, Patsy Widakuswara and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.