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.