Thursday, September 21, 2023
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Afghanistan’s Future No Clearer as Biden Speeds Up Troop Withdrawal

The U.S. has set an Aug. 31 deadline by which it will pull out all troops from Afghanistan to end its role in what has been a 20-year war.

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden moved up his own timeline for the United States to draw down its military presence in Afghanistan, a change to Aug. 31 that not incidentally avoids overlap with a somber 20-year anniversary.

The announcement comes at a time when the Taliban's control of the ground is only growing, but Biden was adamant Thursday afternoon in remarks from the White House that America's only course toward ending its role in an otherwise infinite war is complete extraction from the region.

“Military commanders advised me once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown,” Biden said, speaking from the East Room. “And in this context, speed is safety. Thanks to the way we have managed our withdrawal, not one of our U.S. forces have been lost. Conducting it differently would have certainly come with an increased risk of safety to our personnel."

A total of 600 American forces, mainly Marine Corps and U.S. Army, remain in Afghanistan, serving mostly as a protective unit for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The Defense Department said Tuesday that drawdown efforts are about 90% complete already. General Scott Miller, commander of U.S.-Afghanistan operations, will stay on in the region as the withdrawal concludes.

“As I said in April, the U.S. did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and deliver justice to Osama bin Laden. We achieved those objectives,” Biden said. "That’s why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build, and it is the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."

Nearly 100,000 American forces were on the ground there at the height of the U.S. war, which began following the plane hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001, that brought about the worst attacks on U.S. soil since World War II. Troop levels have fluctuated over time, culminating with President Donald Trump striking a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 and ordering a complete withdrawal in both Afghanistan and Iraq come November.

After weeks of strained negotiations in Qatar, the pact was mostly panned by national security officials, military experts, some members of Congress and other leaders at the Pentagon because it eschewed members of the Afghan government from initial negotiations and effectively asked them to coordinate with the Taliban solo after U.S. forces departed.

By January of this year, U.S. troop levels plunged from about 12,000 to the requested 2,500, though assessments in March from European and Afghan officials suggested the real level was closer to 3,500.

A little over double that amount is what some defense officials have called for to maintain peace in the region. The Afghan Study Group established by Congress in 2019 argues a regular level of about 4,500 troops would practically maintain U.S. interests while mitigating the risk of terrorism in and outside of Afghanistan’s borders.

Trump's successor disagrees.

“Those who would argue we should stay six months more, or one more year, consider the lessons of recent history," Biden said. "In 2011, we agreed to end our combat mission in 2014. In 2014, they argued: one more year. We kept fighting, kept taking on casualties. In 2015, it was the same. And on and on.

"Nearly 20 years has shown that just one more year fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It is up to the Afghan people to make the decisions about the future of their country.”

Though the initial proposed deadline for troop removal was May 1 under the Trump administration, Biden had extended it to September 11 before moving the timeline up Thursday. The State Department in February began accelerating the uncoupling, ordering all nonessential personnel at the embassy in Kabul to leave. Small military bases dotting the Afghan countryside had already been emptied of U.S. forces a year earlier.


“Let me ask those who wanted to stay: How many more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay? Already we have members of the military whose parents fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago," Biden said Thursday. "Would you send their children and grandchildren as well? Would you send your own son or daughter?”

More than 2,100 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Conservative estimates peg the number of Afghan civilians dead over 20 years hovers close to 50,000. Roughly 22,000 U.S. troops have been injured. The National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health estimates at least 50,000 U.S. soldiers have returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” Biden said Thursday.

The bulk of remaining U.S. troops departed Afghanistan last Friday from Bagram Airfield, ground zero for U.S. operations for the last 20 years, but not without causing a considerable kerfuffle first.

The Associated Press had reported on Monday that U.S. troops left Bagram under the cover of night, vacating the airfield without telling Afghanistan’s newest commander of operations, General Mir Asadullah Kohistani. The Pentagon disputed the characterization, saying the withdrawal had been communicated to higher-ups two days before.

At a press conference this week John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, bristled: “I’ve seen those press reports… what I can tell you is that there was a coordination with Afghan leaders both in the government as well as in the Afghan security forces about the eventual turnover of Bagram Air Base.”

This was the “seventh and final base” handed back to Afghan officials, he underlined.

“You don’t do that in a vacuum, and this wasn’t done in a vacuum,” Kirby said.

Electricity and water were shut off at the air base abruptly after U.S. forces withdrew and, according to the Associated Press, looters wasted little time launching a raid on the base for supplies. A Pentagon official did not return request for comment Thursday but reports circulating since Friday have cited anonymous sources chalking up the service disruption to basic “miscommunication.”

General Austin Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters from the U.S. and NATO command center in Kabul he felt a civil war erupting on America’s exit was a path that “can be visualized” if conditions continue there at their current trajectory.

“That should be a concern for the world,” Miller added.

When pressed by reporters if a Taliban takeover was “inevitable,” Biden responded with a succinct “No.”

When asked if he trusted the Taliban, a feeling that his predecessor was criticized of harboring, Biden laughed.

“Is that a serious question? No. I do not trust the Taliban. It’s a silly question. No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war,” he said. “The only way there is peace is if they work out a modus operandi with the Taliban.”

If Kabul falls to the Taliban, or a civil war erupts, the question of what follows will “implicate the entire region,” Biden said. The U.S. involvement at that point, he added, would be centered around the question of the threat posed to America or its allies.

Concerns are mounting and rapidly. This week, Taliban forces were filmed by the United Kingdom’s Sky News carrying weapons and other military supplies off Sultan Khil military base in the Wardak province, roughly 75 miles from Kabul.


Pick-up trucks, light vehicles, nearly 900 guns and some 70 sniper rifles — all provided to the Afghan Army by the U.S. government to fight the Taliban — were taken. Shipping containers filled with ammunition, satellite phones, grenades, mortars and other tactical gear were also snagged by the Taliban. A mosque was overtaken and converted into a makeshift Taliban headquarters where computers and other communications equipment are on hand.

Military outposts have been seized by Taliban officials regularly as American troops have left, and the dynamic is increasingly bleak, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington studying foreign policy.

The foundation’s Long War Journal has tracked Taliban control in Afghanistan for 20 years, and the data indicates that more than 190 districts in Afghanistan since May 1 are now under Taliban control and the network has contested at least 130. Just fewer than another 100 districts, Long War reports, are under indeterminate control.

Turkey and the U.S. are still in talks over how to manage the drawdown and, specifically, how to maintain Kabul International Airport, a critical hub for civilians and military forces that has allowed some semblance of normalcy plus access to supplies and the outside world to sustain the nation long awash in bloodshed and corruption.

If the U.S. can get Turkish forces to agree to secure the airport, then America’s only presence would be a diplomatic one at the U.S. embassy. The embassy, if all goes as planned, will also share its space with NATO officials. The Taliban has indicated, however, that it would not accept the presence of any foreign troops at the airport.

Though the Taliban has told media outlets it is not cracking down on press access in its territories nor instituting harsh rule against local people, the reality may be less rosy. Especially, for women and girls.

A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued this February described a significant change in the treatment of women and girls in the region, including the enrollment of 3.5 million girls in school — nearly half of the 9 million students living there.

Legal rights, the report notes, “at least on paper” have also offered women a shot at equal rights though data is “often poor” and gains are “fragile.”

“Moreover, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are nearly double what they were in 2009. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in 2019, 12% of civilian casualties were women and 30% were children,” the report states.

Poverty in Afghanistan is also devastating: 55% of the population has lived in poverty since 2016. It wasn’t much better a little over a decade ago with the World Bank reporting poverty in 2003 was 53%.

Biden vowed the U.S. would continue to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and would speak out for the rights of women and girls.

The U.S. will also continue to accelerate special immigrant visas to bring interpreters and translators who assisted U.S. forces to America. The White House said Thursday 2,500 special immigrant visas have already been approved but, up to now, fewer than half of have been utilized.

“Half have come on commercial flights, the other half believe they want to stay. At least thus far,” Biden said.

Allied nations are also open to opening their borders for those Afghan families who want to wait outside of the country while their U.S. visas are being processed. The White House and the State Department now have coordinators working on relocations.

“Our message is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so chose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” Biden said.

Though uncertainty in Afghanistan’s future is undeniable, the president insisted American troops must leave.  

“The U.S. cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to the world as it was 20 years ago," he said. "We need to meet the threats where they are today. Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan, so we are repositioning our resources to meet threats where they are now and they are significantly higher in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.”

Follow Brandi Buchman on Twitter

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