WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden said Thursday that he will achieve his goal of ending America’s 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan, the country’s longest-running war, by Aug. 31.
Once U.S. forces and equipment are fully withdrawn, Biden will have dramatically shifted U.S. foreign policy ― thrilling skeptics of the war, from nearly all Democrats to a vocal group of conservatives, and making good on a promise the two presidents before him ultimately abandoned.
“We did not go there to nation-build,” Biden said. “It is the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people to determine how they want to be governed.”
But the costs of the withdrawal are also becoming increasingly clear.
The Taliban, the militant group that the U.S. pushed out of power in Kabul in 2001 for its role in the 9/11 terror attacks, is quickly gaining ground against Afghanistan’s pro-U.S. government. The insurgents ― whose hardline interpretation of Islam severely curtails human rights, particularly for women ― have besieged major provincial capitals and are showing little interest in negotiations to share power with local allies of the U.S.
Afghan officials are desperate for the Biden administration to confirm that it will not abandon them and to signal an ongoing interest in their country’s stability, and humanitarian groups are warning that a further uptick in fighting could lead to major bloodshed. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) are arguing that pulling out will enable terror groups to gain safe haven in Afghanistan and again use it as a staging ground for attacks against Americans.
Biden attempted to allay those concerns in his remarks, saying the change in course was long overdue and that moving fast to draw down the U.S. presence was the safest way to do so.
On Sept. 20, 2001, then-President George W. Bush said during a joint session of Congress: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Justice, if defined by the downfall of the Taliban, was accomplished within months. To ensure that the Taliban did not regain power, the Bush administration and U.S. allies set about remaking Afghanistan as a pro-Western democracy, a project that lasted nearly five full presidential terms.
Nineteen years and 10 months later, one floor down and a dozen paces northeast of the room where Bush announced that the assault on Afghanistan had begun, Biden spelled out details for finally ending the mission at a brief press conference.
The president noted that American forces have moved out of the country faster than anticipated and that he will end the mission 12 days before the deadline he set in April. Critics of his strategy say that pace encouraged Taliban advances by giving the impression of a scramble. Military officials disagreed, Biden said, telling him that “speed is safety.”
Biden has spoken of withdrawing from Afghanistan for years, but the policy became one of his first global priorities largely because of circumstances beyond his control: former President Donald Trump’s agreement to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, which included a Taliban pledge to stop attacking Americans.
“That’s what I inherited. That agreement was the reason the Taliban had ceased major attacks against U.S. forces,” Biden said. “If in April, I had instead announced that the United States is going back on the agreement made by the last administration, the United States and allied forces would remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, the Taliban would again have begun to target our forces.”
“The status quo was not an option,” he added. “Staying meant U.S. troops taking casualties. American men and women, back in the middle of a civil war.”
Biden’s move also reflects how anti-war activists have influenced politicians and the national conversation. Fans of the withdrawal, including prominent progressive and conservative advocacy groups, are rallying to defend his policy, highlighting the toll of the Afghan war on service members and saying military means are not the best way to protect Afghans’ rights.
The likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.
President Joe Biden
The Biden administration describes its approach as pragmatic, saying it sees and is managing the risks of withdrawal. Earlier on Thursday, American aid officials in Afghanistan issued a press release describing growing U.S. investments in efforts to provide electricity and clean water to Afghans. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “We’re not having a celebration.”
Officials also outlined a plan to help the thousands of Afghan translators who worked with the U.S. and allied forces. They fear violent retribution by the Taliban, and top Democrats have joined Republicans in saying they must be assisted. Biden said they will be moved to a third country before eventually being allowed to move to the U.S.
“Our message to these men and women is clear: There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose,” the president said. “We will stand with you as you stood with us.”
He also addressed security fears, saying his national security advisers had assured him that even without a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, “we have the capabilities to protect the homeland from any resurgent terrorist challenge.”
Biden cited the billions of dollars worth of training and equipment that the U.S. had invested in friendly Afghan forces, saying they could, if they chose, resist a Taliban takeover and that American intelligence did not currently predict that the militants would be able to capture Kabul.
At times, the president veered into analysis that could prove politically costly.
He responded to a question comparing his Afghan withdrawal to the disastrous U.S. retreat from South Vietnam by predicting, “There is going to be no circumstance where you see people lifted off the roof of the American embassy.”
And Biden conceded that the country would remain fractured at best, a visible symbol of the limits of what Washington and its partners could achieve there. “The likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely,” the president said.
Still, the U.S.’s prime mission had been accomplished, Biden emphasized: pursuing Osama bin Laden and ending Afghanistan’s status as a terrorist haven. He spoke of investing resources in other concerns, such as China’s rise and global health challenges like the coronavirus pandemic, rather than remaining “tethered to policies created in response to the world as it was 20 years ago.”
The president was most strident in questioning the idea that there was a wise alternative to his plan ― and, without naming them, challenging the hawkish lawmakers and analysts who have questioned his withdrawal.
“To those who argue we should stay just six more months, let’s consider the lessons of recent history,” Biden said, ticking off past U.S. troop surges. “Just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely.”
“How many more, how many thousands more Americans ― daughters and sons ― are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?”
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