WASHINGTON – Calling for the end of a two-decade war that saw 775,000 American troops serve and 2,300 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, where former President George W. Bush announced the first airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2001. “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 become more dispersed and metastasized around the world.”
“We delivered justice to Bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan a decade since then,” Biden said, referring to the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden, the onetime leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network. “Since then, our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”
Yet the withdrawal came with concerns from some of Biden’s allies and the U.S. intelligence community that a military departure could thrust Afghanistan further into chaos.
An intelligence report Tuesday gave a bleak outlook for peace in Afghanistan if the U.S. withdraws, predicting 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 war in Afghanistan – which sought to establish democratic governance, defeat al-Qaida and push the Taliban out of power – has cost the U.S. more than $2 trillion and taken the lives of more than 38,000 Afghan civilians.
Biden’s timeline would extend a prior agreement negotiated by former President Donald Trump to withdraw all troops by May 1. Instead, the more than 3,000 troops still serving in Afghanistan would begin coming home on May 1. At the height of the war in 2011, 98,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Afghanistan 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.”
Biden sought to counter criticism from Republicans and some Democrats who say U.S. objectives – including recent civil rights gains 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.
Biden said the U.S. “will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” adding it will be made “responsibly, deliberately and safely.” But he he said American troops should not be used as “bargaining chips for warring parties in other countries,” calling that “a recipe for keeping American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.”
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal and expecting a different result,” Biden said.
“When will it be the right moment to leave?” the president asked. “One more year? Two more years? Ten more years?”
Biden, who campaigned on a promise to end America’s “forever wars,” had faced increasing pressure on whether to stick to Trump’s May 1 deadline. He thanked American soldiers who fought in Afghanistan for their “bravery and backbone” and followed up his speech with a trip to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. There, he paid respects to service members who died in the war in Afghanistan.
“I’m always amazed at generation after generation, the women and men prepared to give their lives for their country,” Biden said.
“No, it wasn’t,” he said when asked by a reporter whether the withdrawal was a hard decision. “It was absolutely clear.”
His decision drew harsh warnings from politicians in both parties and praise from mostly Democrats.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the withdrawal is a “a disaster in the making” and “so irresponsible, it makes the Biden Administration policies at the border look sound.” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., whose father Dick Cheney was vice president when the war began, called the Sept. 11 deadline “a huge propaganda victory for the Taliban, for al-Qaida.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a Democratic ally of Biden and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she is “very disappointed” by the decision. She said “the U.S. has sacrificed too much” to leave without assurances of a secure future in Afghanistan.
But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., applauded the move and said the U.S. “must remain committed to diplomatic, economic and humanitarian support for Afghanistan even as we bring this military intervention to an end.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told CNN on Wednesday the plan “is a very good one,” describing it as “thought out.”
Biden said he informed Bush, who launched the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror, of his decision Tuesday. Former President Barack Obama, in a statement, said Biden has made the right call, adding that “it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were in Brussels Tuesday to notify NATO allies of the decision. Biden also consulted with his Cabinet, Vice President Kamala Harris, members of Congress, the Afghan government and other global allies, he said.
Biden said the U.S. “will not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” but reorganize counterterrorism capabilities and hold the Taliban accountable to not allow any terrorist group to operate 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.”
The drawdown of U.S. troops will be made in coordination with NATO allies and the withdrawal of their troops, which number around 7,000, according to the White House. Biden said the U.S. will defend itself with “all the tools at our disposal” if the Taliban attacks the U.S. or allies during the withdrawal.
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. He also pledged to continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls.
Al-Qaida 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, which 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.
If the U.S. were to pursue an approach that ties an exit to conditions on the ground, Biden said, then those conditions would need to 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 lives 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.”
Contributing: Katie Wadington
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.