WASHINGTON (CN) — Although the past four presidents have borne the responsibility of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said Wednesday he will not pass the burden of finding an end to conflict onto a fifth.
“After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel… I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war,” he said. “It’s time for America’s troops to come home.”
America invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and has remained embroiled in the nation’s conflict between terrorist forces like al-Qaida and the Taliban in some form ever since. Biden said by the 20st anniversary of that invasion, less than five months away, the remaining 13,000 U.S. troops in the country would withdraw — ending the nation’s longest military conflict since the Vietnam War. The start of the withdrawal will begin May 1.
From the Treaty Room in the White House, the same space where President George W. Bush announced the U.S. military had begun strikes against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 2001, Biden said he had consulted with the 43rd president on Tuesday to inform him of the decision.
“While he and I have had many disagreements over policy throughout the years, we’re absolutely united in our respect and support for the valor, the courage and integrity of the women and men of the United States armed forces that serve,” Biden said.
Pulling a card from his breast pocket with statistics on the War in Afghanistan that he says he carries at all times, the president noted the importance of not approximating the total U.S. troop deaths — exactly 2,488 U.S. personnel have died in both Afghan operations, Enduring Freedom and Freedom Sentinel. Another 20,722 have been wounded, he said.
“That exact number, not an approximation or a rounded off number because every one of those dead are sacred human beings who left behind entire families, an exact accounting of every single solitary one needs to be had,” Biden said.
Forces employed by America’s operational partners like Canada, the United Kingdom or Australia will withdraw alongside U.S. troops, Biden said. Diplomatic support to Afghanistan will continue and the U.S. will also keep providing assistance to Afghan National Security Forces and Defense.
“They’ll continue to fight valiantly on behalf of the Afghans at great cost,” Biden said. “They’ll support peace talks as we will support peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban supported by the United Nations and we’ll continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian and development assistance.”
Senators have expressed mixed reaction at the president’s decision, including Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. During a hearing Wednesday on 2021 annual threat assessment, he said a U.S. exit must be executed safely.
“Any withdrawal that takes place in that country must take place in a matter that is diplomatic... and in close consultation with our Afghan allies,” Warner said. “We must ensure the safety of those dedicated Afghans who have worked closely with the United States over the last 20 years.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday Biden had asked for a review of the conflict from national security advisers and part of that conversation involved intelligence experts describing an evolving landscape of threats. Danger was more dispersed in areas around the world rather than concentrated in a central country.
“We can’t look at things through the 2001 mindset," Psaki said. "We have to look at things through the 2021 world.”
The president said that later Wednesday, he would visit a 14-acre stretch of the Arlington National Cemetery known as Section 60 that contains many of the most recent U.S. service members killed in action, including in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There’s no comforting distance in history in Section 60. The grief is raw,” Biden said. “It’s a visceral reminder of the living cost of war.”
Biden said he was the first president in 40 years to know the meaning of having a child serve in a warzone. His late son Beau deployed to Iraq in 2008. Throughout the process, he said, his North Star has been remembering what it had felt like watching him deploy and the impact it had on him and his family.
“We already have service members doing their duty in Afghanistan today whose parents served in the same war,” Biden said. “We have service members who were not yet born when our nation was attacked in 9/11. The War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking.”
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