Washington – U.S. President Joe Biden will withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, finally ending America’s longest war despite mounting fears of a Taliban victory, officials said Tuesday.
The drawdown delays only by around five months an agreement with the Taliban by former President Donald Trump to pull troops, amid a growing consensus in Washington that little more can be achieved.
The decision came as Turkey announced an international peace conference on Afghanistan in hopes, however modest, of reaching a power-sharing arrangement that can bring stability to a nation battered by nearly 40 years of war.
Biden, who will make an announcement Wednesday, had earlier mused about keeping a residual force to strike at al-Qaida or an emergent Islamic State extremist threat or making withdrawal contingent on progress on the ground or in slow-moving peace talks.
In the end, he decided to do neither and will order a complete withdrawal other than limited U.S. personnel to guard the U.S. installations including the imposing embassy in Kabul, a senior official said.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Under the Trump administration’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban, all U.S. troops would leave by May 2021 in return for the insurgents’ promise not to back al-Qaida and other foreign extremists — the original reason for the 2001 invasion.
The Biden official said the withdrawal would begin in May and that the delay was largely logistical, with troops possibly out of Afghanistan well before Sept. 11.
The official warned the Taliban — who are observing a truce with U.S. but not with Afghan forces — not to strike coalition forces as they leave, saying that in response to any attack “we will hit back hard.”
Fighting will likely grind on. A threat assessment report published Tuesday by the director of national intelligence said the Taliban “is confident it can achieve military victory.”
“Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020,” it said.
Afghan civilians have long paid a disproportionate price in the fighting and the rise of the Taliban has raised particular fears among many Afghan women.
The Taliban, who enforce an austere brand of Sunni Islam, banned women from school, offices, music and most of daily life during their 1996-2001 rule over much of Afghanistan. Two decades later, 40% of schoolchildren are girls.
The Biden official said the United States would use nonmilitary “tools at our disposal” to promote women’s rights including bolstering civilian assistance.
But Afghan women have been largely shut out of talks between the Taliban and Kabul on a lasting peace deal in the country, with activists arguing this could compromise their fragile, hard-won rights going forward.
Biden’s decision came as Turkey announced the dates of a U.S.-backed peace conference — also expected to include few women — that would bring together the Afghan government, the Taliban and international partners.
The April 24 to May 4 conference will aim to lead to “a roadmap to a future political settlement and an end to the conflict,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
In a sign of the wide international concerns, diplomats said that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors would take part including Iran and China, which both have tense relations with the United States.
Also in attendance will be both Pakistan, the Taliban’s historic supporter, and its rival India, a staunch ally of the Kabul government which has strongly backed the U.S. presence.
But many observers believe that the Taliban think they have already effectively won and can wait out the U.S. withdrawal, as little progress has come out of on-off talks in Qatar.
A decade ago, the United States had some 100,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a “surge” strategy by then president Barack Obama to defeat the Taliban.
The troop figure by the end of Trump’s presidency had gone down to 2,500 as support for military action waned.
Even onetime backers of the war have voiced concern about limited gains on the ground as well as infighting and corruption in Kabul and questioned whether the $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan could have had better uses at a time of growing alarm about China.
Sen. Tim Kaine, an ally of Biden, said the United States accomplished a primary goal 10 years ago by killing Osama bin Laden and that it was time to “refocus American national security on the most pressing challenges we face.”
But Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “shocked and appalled” by Biden’s decision.
The withdrawal means “abandoning our Afghan partners during critical peace negotiations and allowing the Taliban a total victory,” he said.
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