For U.S. President Joe Biden, withdrawing the remaining American troops from Afghanistan is a recognition of the inevitable after 20 years of war with no clear victory in sight. The president’s critics argue it will obliterate U.S. leverage over the Taliban, and doom the country’s few but fragile gains.
Biden, speaking Wednesday from the same room where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, cast his decision as the ultimate buck-stops-here moment, delivering on a commitment that three previous presidents had made but failed to fulfill.
He would finally end the longest of the country’s “forever wars,” refusing to risk more taxpayer funds — and American blood — on a far-away conflict.
The U.S., Biden argued, killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden almost a decade ago and fulfilled its mission.
“It’s time for American troops to come home,” he said. “I said, among with others, we would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, if need be. That’s exactly what we did, and we got him.”
But with the decision to withdraw troops by this Sept. 11, Biden’s critics — including some U.S. lawmakers, Afghan leaders and former American officials — argue he’s being too quick to remove troops that provide a bulwark of support to Afghanistan’s government, and leverage over Taliban fighters.
And Afghan women, who were largely barred from education and employment under Taliban rule before the American invasion, could be the biggest losers if the insurgent group with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam returns to power, as some intelligence and military experts predict.
Already, the signs are troubling. Peace talks the Taliban were due to attend from April 24 in Istanbul are in jeopardy, with the insurgent group’s leaders saying late Tuesday that they won’t participate until “all foreign forces completely withdraw.”
A report on worldwide threats issued by U.S. intelligence agencies Tuesday forecast that the Taliban were likely to “make gains on the battlefield,” suggesting the Afghan government could lose control if the U.S. and its NATO allies withdraw as they now plan.
“Now that the United States has forfeited its strongest point of leverage — a troop presence — it is unlikely the Taliban will pursue political accommodation or reduce violence in the interest of peace,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a National Security Council official under President Donald Trump, in a statement. Curtis clearly wasn’t in accord with Trump, who had vowed to bring the troops home even sooner, by May 1.
Pivot to Asia
The Biden administration’s argument is that in the last 20 years, the biggest threats to U.S. national security have evolved: from terrorists in Afghanistan to those in Syria and Somalia, from the Middle East to China and from real-world battlefields to online hacking.
The president said it was time to move away from old conflicts and turn toward future threats. “Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us,” Biden said.
His move will free up the military’s attention as well as some money — the Pentagon spent almost $40 billion in fiscal 2020 on Afghanistan operations — to focus on countering the growing threat from China’s military and delivering on the long-promised “pivot to Asia.”
The president’s supporters also say the U.S. will retain the ability to make sure the Taliban live up to a commitment not to let Afghanistan become a terrorist haven.
Asked about that prospect in Brussels on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to detail how many American troops would remain in the country to protect diplomats, or to discuss “where our counterterrorist assets may be positioned” in the region.
“The big question: Is this just a reduction in Afghanistan or part of a general reduction of U.S. posture in the Middle East,” Mark Cancian, a former Office of Management and Budget defense director and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a email.
Biden also argued that the U.S. and its allies will ramp up humanitarian spending and monitor any changes in Afghanistan’s human rights situation.
But the U.S. has spent almost $1 trillion in the country since 2001, and Afghanistan remains fragile. The Taliban’s loyalists are relentless, the Afghan military is mostly undisciplined and ineffective and more than 8,000 civilians died in the conflict last year alone.
It’s hard to imagine all of that changing with the U.S. trying to help from afar.
Although U.S. military commanders have repeatedly argued that the war was turning a corner, official findings make clear that hasn’t been the case.
Quarterly reports from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — a Pentagon-based watchdog — highlighted the a fiasco most efforts to rebuild Afghanistan became, with hundreds of millions of dollars going to security contractors or wasted entirely.
Official visits to Afghanistan made it all too plain: As the Taliban took back province after province, the country became a no-go zone for foreigners.
Visiting American secretaries of state and defense wouldn’t announce their arrivals in advance. They no longer drove the road from the Kabul airport to the U.S. embassy, relying on the relative safety of helicopters instead.
Even the short trip from the U.S. embassy to the presidential compound required heavily armored vehicles and a security escort.
To some experts, the entire discussion about the U.S. and NATO troop presence is a distraction from the real issue — whether the diplomatic process could ever be a success and what would come after, once the outside troops are gone and the Taliban remain.
“The most interesting question is will Afghanistan hang together, because if the answer’s no there’s a decent likelihood that we’ll see a return to what we saw in Iraq,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. That was a reference to the drawdown of U.S. forces that opened a power vacuum ultimately exploited by Islamic State.
“A quite modest presence hasn’t solved all the problems of Afghanistan but may have prevented more dangerous scenarios from emerging,” he said.
Proponents of Biden’s decision argue that the U.S. has plenty of leverage left over the Taliban. They seek international recognition and funding from overseas, as well as the release of thousands more prisoners held by the Afghan government.
And it may provide a jolt to the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who has mostly balked at making serious commitments as part of the peace process underway with the group.
“The reality is that for the first time in 20 years we actually have Afghans talking to Afghans about the future of Afghanistan,” said Douglas Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “The remaining leverage we have are the things the Taliban want and need. They don’t want to rule a pariah state.”
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