Speaking from the Treaty Room in the White House, Biden said that the U.S. “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.”
“I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.”
“It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.”
Biden said that he would begin to withdraw troops on May 1, the deadline for complete withdrawal outlined in a deal the Trump administration reached with the Taliban, adding that the U.S. would “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.”
Biden’s timeline for the drawdown coincides with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered America’s invasion of the war-ravaged country. The high-stakes foreign policy decision marks what the administration hopes will be the end of a conflict that has cost the lives of around 2,300 U.S. troops and wounded thousands more — and raises questions about the future of the massive international reconstruction effort. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 Afghans have also died or been wounded during the war.
The Biden administration shared the president’s decision with NATO allies this week, and other troops serving from allied countries in Afghanistan will also withdraw, a senior administration official said Tuesday. NATO has about 7,000 non-American forces in the country, according to the alliance.
In addition to NATO, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that senior administration officials had reached out to about 50 members of Congress, 44 countries, the European Union and the Union Nations regarding Biden’s decision. Biden also spoke with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan Wednesday, according to the White House.
Biden also consulted former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on his decision.
In a statement Wednesday, Obama said Biden “made the right decision,” adding that “after nearly two decades of putting our troops in harm’s way, it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily, and that it’s time to bring our remaining troops home.”
Biden’s decision comes after a three-month Afghanistan policy review which determined that any national security threat from Afghanistan is at a “level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without being at war with the Taliban,” an administration official said.
Responding to questions about whether Biden was warned that peace would not be guaranteed in the region if the U.S. left, Psaki emphasized that Biden “asked for that review not to be sugar coated.”
Biden said that the United States will continue to support the Afghanistan government and will provide assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The U.S. will also continue diplomatic and humanitarian work in the country and will support peace talks.
“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.”
Biden stressed the devastating loss of life across multiple generations as a result of the war, drawing on his own experience when his son, Beau Biden, served in Iraq. “I am the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serving in a war zone,” Biden said.
U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001, toppling the Taliban government that had sheltered Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, sent shockwaves through the international community and provoked a huge groundswell of support and sympathy for America.
Nearly 20 years later, international money makes up around 75 percent of the Afghan government’s national budget. And the U.S. withdrawal calls into question the future of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which has been fighting an increasingly bloody war with the Taliban ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.
Waheed Omar, an adviser to the Afghan president, said the withdrawal of U.S. troops had been discussed between the U.S. and Afghan governments repeatedly in the past and Afghanistan would respect any decision taken by Washington with regard to its troops.
Afghan national defense forces have recently conducted 98 percent of operations independently and “are fully capable” of doing that in the future, Omar said in a statement provided by the Afghan president’s office.
Biden’s choice of the 9/11 deadline highlights the reason why America invaded Afghanistan in the first place — to prevent extremist groups like Al Qaeda from establishing a foothold again that could be used to launch attacks against the U.S.
The conflict largely crippled Al Qaeda and led to the death of bin Laden. But observers and critics fear an American withdrawal risks many of the country’s gains made in democracy, women’s rights and governance, as well as emboldening the Taliban, whose primary mission for decades has been to force foreign soldiers from the country.
The withdrawal also risks leaving the militants in a position of strength and in control of large swaths of the country after decades of war that have had a devastating impact of Afghans.
Between 2001 and 2018, nearly 60,000 Afghan military and police were killed in the violence, according to a study by Brown University. And more than 100,000 civilians are believed to have been killed or injured in the 10 years after 2009, when the United Nations began systematically recording the war’s impact on civilians.
An intelligence community report published Tuesday about global threats to the national security of the United States said prospects for a peace deal in Afghanistan are “low” and warned that “the Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield.”
If the coalition withdraws support, the Afghan government will “struggle to hold the Taliban at bay,” the report says. The Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory, it adds.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday that the U.S. had not shared with them its new plan and that the Taliban would comment when that happens.
But two militant leaders in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, told NBC News they had rejected proposals that U.S. troops stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline presented by the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.
The Taliban has been negotiating a path to peace with an Afghan delegation in Doha on and off since September.
The U.S. withdrawal may be completed well in advance of Sept. 11, the senior administration official said. Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery later Wednesday to pay his respects to the men and women killed in the war.
By Saphora Smith and Lauren Egan | NBC News