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International relations

Ending 'Forever War,' Biden orders Afghan withdrawal from May 1

NATO also announces drawdown, amid fears of Taliban resurgence

U.S. President Joe Biden walks among graves in Section 60 during a visit to pay his respects in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on April 14. 

NEW YORK -- President Joe Biden has announced the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, sealing the fate of America's longest war in history.

In a televised address on Wednesday, the U.S. president, who is the fourth American commander-in-chief to oversee the war, said: "It is time to end America's longest war. It is time for American troops to come home."

"We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago," said Biden. "That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021."

"We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We will do it responsibly," he added, saying the drawdown will begin on May 1, the original date of withdrawal agreed between the Taliban and the Trump administration.

"War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking," he said, defending the terms of the withdrawal, which place no new conditions on the Taliban.

Biden's announcement to withdraw the roughly 2,500 American troops by the symbolic date of September 11, 2021 -- two decades after the terror attacks that triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan -- came after a phone call with his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani.

President Joe Biden pulls a note card from his pocket as he speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14 about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.    © AP

The Afghan president confirmed on Twitter that he had spoken to Biden before the official announcement. "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 stated.

However, amid considerable speculation and warnings from experts that Afghanistan will likely descend into chaos after the American withdrawal and with the Taliban expected to make battlefield gains against weak national security forces, the Afghan president reiterated his optimism.

"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."

As for U.S. partners in NATO, which also have troops in Afghanistan, the withdrawal will follow a similar pattern. Just as Biden made his announcement, partner nations from Operation Resolute Support Mission issued a press release from NATO headquarters stating, "Recognizing that there is no military solution to the challenges Afghanistan faces, Allies have determined that we will start the withdrawal of Resolute Support Mission forces by May 1. This drawdown will be orderly, coordinated, and deliberate. We plan to have the withdrawal of all U.S. and Resolute Support Mission forces completed within a few months."

"Any Taliban attacks on Allied troops during this withdrawal will be met with a forceful response," it added.

Biden's announcement came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Brussels, meeting NATO officials to discuss the withdrawal. According to the Pakistani military, Blinken also had a telephone conversation with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the military commander of Pakistan, which exercises influence over parts of the Taliban leadership.

The Pakistani military announced that "Pakistan will always support [an] 'Afghan led-Afghan Owned' Peace Process based on mutual consensus of all stakeholders."

As reports circulated about the May 1 deadline being pushed to September 11, the Taliban, who have already withdrawn from a peace conference in Istanbul scheduled for later this month, warned on Twitter: "Attention if the Doha Agreement [for the May 1 withdrawal] is broken."

Meanwhile, the Biden administration also encountered domestic criticism.

"A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican and fierce critic of the U.S. administration. "President Biden will have, in essence, cancelled an insurance policy against another 9/11."

Sameer Lalwani, director of the South Asia program at Washington's Stimson Center, said "The problem is that this 'insurance policy' had a variable rate that was held artificially low during the U.S.-Taliban agreement," rejecting Graham's analysis. "But this rate was about to expire after May 1 when the Taliban begin targeting U.S. troops again, significantly raising the cost of our presence in blood and treasure. The Biden administration has opted to ditch this policy for a more affordable offshore counterterrorism insurance scheme and direct the savings towards other U.S. interests."

But the deal with the Taliban to not engage American troops, reiterated by Biden today, may be shortsighted, and could lead to the revival of an older enemy.

A U.S. Army crew chief surveys the area over Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army) 

"The Taliban are ascendant on the battlefield, inflicting damage and putting major political pressure against Afghan security forces. The administration doesn't have any good plan to prevent the fragmentation of the already divided Afghan polity and security forces," said Asfandyar Mir, post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. "al-Qaida is resilient in Afghanistan and continues to work with not just the Afghan Taliban but also the Pakistani insurgent group the TTP [the Pakistani Taliban]. As U.S. forces pull out, al-Qaida's threat from Afghanistan is going to increase."

"For now, the Biden administration is eliding the all-important question of the Taliban ties with al-Qaida and whether the Taliban have taken the steps against al-Qaida required under the February 2020 Doha deal, perhaps to enable the withdrawal. This suggests Biden expects Taliban will continue to support al-Qaida going forward," said Mir.

The administration's approach for avoiding a condition-based withdrawal was defended by Biden in his speech.

"When will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? 10 more years? 10, 20, $30 billion more on the trillion we've already spent?," he asked, rhetorically.

"At this moment, there's a significant downside risk to staying beyond May 1st without a clear timetable for departure."

Stimson's Lalwani said the Biden administration refused to submit to a conditions-based withdrawal "because it justified indefinite commitments in the pursuit of zero risk." The past decade proved that was unlikely to ever materialize, he said. "We have to come to terms with the fact that a level of violent disorder will remain for a long time."

Beyond the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida, the threat from the Islamic State, which has a limited presence in the country's eastern periphery along the border with Pakistan, as well as political factionalism, which led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, also remains.

"Regardless of the main reason why President Biden is extracting the U.S. military and hence NATO from Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan may end up being sacrificed and left to the depredations of the Taliban and Islamic State," said Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert on the Pakistani military. "The attempts of regional warlords to protect their own turfs will create more chaos and massive destruction. And America will not be able to return to save them."

But Stimson's Lalwani said that extending U.S. presence would not alter the structural discrepancies of the Afghan state: "The truth is Afghanistan would never meet the requisite conditions for security and stability as advocates prescribed because the state and security forces are too weak, political leaders are too predatory and fractious, and sovereignty is too vulnerable by assertive neighbors. Worse, our presence was creating perverse incentives that exacerbated state weakness, political fragmentation, and external meddling. Conditioning our exit on those factors effectively made for a self-licking ice cream cone."

Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center was more optimistic about Biden's announcement: "It was a thoughtful and reasonable speech that essentially said our work is done in Afghanistan while emphasizing there will be a continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan through diplomatic and economic support. For an Afghan audience listening to the speech, that's essential.

However, not all listening in Afghanistan agreed. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who has long professed his reservations about the peace process, took to Twitter as he rejected that process: "Quetta Shura clerical dictatorship won't work. Un-imaginable. Never." His reference was to the Pakistani city of Quetta, which reportedly houses the Taliban leadership-in-exile, also known as the Quetta Shura.

Before the announcement, Biden spoke with his predecessor, George W. Bush, under whose watch the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was launched in September, 2001, when the first U.S. Special Forces dropped into northern Afghanistan.

"While he and I have had many disagreements over policy throughout the years, we're absolutely united in our respect and support for the valor, the courage and integrity of the women and men in the United States Armed Forces who served, and immensely grateful for the bravery and backbone they have shown through nearly two decades of combat deployments," said Biden.

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