United States President Joe Biden on Wednesday framed his planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan around the reason they were sent there in the first place: The September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
“It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said during a speech in the White House Treaty Room.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth,” he said.
The US 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Biden set September 11 as the date when the remaining 2,500 or so US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, effectively ending what many have called America’s “forever war”, a war that cost more than 2,400 US lives and as much as $1 trillion. The troop withdrawal process will begin on May 1, Biden said.
In the wake of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, masterminded by Osama bin Laden, then-US President George W Bush launched the war in Afghanistan in October 2001 after it was learned the Taliban was harbouring bin Laden and refused to turn him over.
The Taliban was removed from power shortly thereafter by US-led forces and bin Laden was eventually found and killed in neighboring Pakistan in 2011.
Biden was facing a May 1 deadline agreed to by the Taliban and the previous Donald Trump administration, a date that Biden had signalled he was not going to meet.
The Taliban has threatened “problems” if the US does not meet the May 1 deadline; Biden hopes that setting a new deadline with explanation will placate them.
Based on the Taliban’s initial reaction, they have not been placated.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seeks the withdrawal of all foreign forces from our homeland on the date specified in the Doha Agreement,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter Tuesday.
“If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit the country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those who failed to comply with the agreement will be held responsible,” Mujahid continued.
While Biden’s announcement is being celebrated by progressive Democrats such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it has also raised concerns about what it means for the Afghanistan government and US national security moving forward.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted Wednesday that he had spoken with Biden and “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition.
“Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful,” Ghani continued.
However, an Afghan government peace negotiator in Doha, in an interview with the DPA news agency, described the move as “the most irresponsible, selfish thing the United States could do to its Afghan partners”.
The Afghan negotiator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it might be the end of the war for Washington, but that Afghan partners will pay the price.
“A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, according to the Associated Press. “President Biden will have, in essence, cancelled an insurance policy against another 9/11.”
An assessment from the US intelligence community released this week concluded, “The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
And CIA Director William Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee, “There is a significant risk once the US military and the coalition militaries withdraw”, although he added the US would retain “a suite of capabilities”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters prior to Biden’s speech that he is fully aware of these concerns but he also has also heard from the US intelligence community that “the threat has dispersed, it’s metastasised around the world … it’s changed. We’re not looking at the 2001 mindset. We can’t look at things through the 2001 mindset”.
Following his remarks, Biden was to visit the section of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia where those US service members who died in Afghanistan and Iraq have been laid to rest.