WASHINGTON – Calling for the end of a two-decade war that saw 775,000 American troops serve and 2,500 killed, President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced all U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11., the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that triggered the conflict.
“It is time to end America’s longest war’,” Biden said in a speech from the White House Treaty Room. “It is time for American troops to come home.”
Biden said the U.S. has accomplished its main objective of ensuring Afghanistan won’t remain a base from which terrorists can attack the homeland again. He said the U.S. must shift its focus to target terrorism threats that have expanded globally beyond just Afghanistan.
Since the invasion, more than 775,000 American troops have served at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan, with 98,000 troops in the country at the height of the war in 2011 before a steady decline over the last decade.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
The war in Afghanistan – which sought to establish democratic governance, defeat al-Qaeda and push the Taliban out of power – has cost the U.S. more than $2 trillion. More than 38,000 Afghan civilians have been killed.
Biden’s timeline to exit will extend military presence in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 withdrawal date previously negotiated by former President Donald Trump.
Biden sought to counter criticism from Republicans and some Democrats who say U.S. objectives – including civil rights gained by Afghan women under the Taliban regime – could be lost if the U.S. exits too soon. Trump faced similar pushback for his planned military departure.
“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, pushing back at those who argue now is not the “right time.”
“When will it be the right moment to leave?” the president asked. “One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more on top of the trillion we’ve already spent? Not now? That’s how we got here.”
If the U.S were to pursue an approach that ties an exit to conditions on the ground, Biden said, then those conditions must be clearly defined.
“And how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost of live and treasure? I haven’t heard any good answers to these questions. And if we can’t answer them, in my view, we should not stay.”
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For Biden, who campaigned on a promise to end America’s “forever wars,” the withdrawal from Afghanistan is arguably his most significant foreign policy action in his young presidency. He followed up his speech with a trip to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects to service members who died in the war in Afghanistan.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.
“Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that will determine our standing and reach today and into the years to come.”
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The drawdown of the more than 3,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan will begin before May 1 in coordination with NATO allies and the withdrawal of their troops which number around 7,000. Biden warned the Taliban that any attacks on the U.S. during the withdrawal will be met with a forceful response.
Biden vowed that America’s diplomatic and humanitarian work in Afghanistan will continue – and the U.S. will still support the Afghanistan government – even though the U.S. will not stay involved militarily.
That includes training and equipping more than 300,000 members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, he said, and supporting peace talks backed by the United Nations between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda used Afghanistan, under control of the Taliban, as a safe haven from which to plan the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
But instead of being driven out by military force, the Taliban now control vast swaths of the country, and it continues to be racked by violence despite U.S.-brokered peace talks. Many experts say the situation in Afghanistan will not improve no matter how much longer the United States stays, or how much more money Washington invests.
A U.S. intelligence report released Tuesday gave a bleak outlook of the immediate future for Afghanistan, predicting the “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year.”
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“The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” the assessment said.
Biden had faced increasing pressure on whether to stick to Trump’s May 1 deadline to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Some of Biden’s key allies in Congress have warned a complete U.S. withdrawal would thrust Afghanistan further into chaos and violence. Others have said keeping U.S. troops on the ground any longer could spark a backlash among progressives who want to see an end to the war in Afghanistan.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.