As officials revealed Biden’s withdrawal intentions, the US intelligence community expressed intense worry on Tuesday about the future of the US-backed government in Kabul, which is clinging to an eroding stalemate.
“The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” said the U.S. assessment, which was sent to Congress.
“Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”
According to senior US officials, Biden expects to declare at the White House on Wednesday that all US troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by September 11.
Sept. 11 is a particularly symbolic day since it marks the 20th anniversary of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, which caused then-President George W. Bush to declare war. The war has claimed the lives of 2,400 American service members and has cost the country an estimated $2 trillion.
The Democratic president faced a May 1 withdrawal deadline imposed by his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, who attempted but failed to remove troops before leaving office.
Biden’s decision will keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan past that May 1 deadline, but officials suggested troops could fully depart before Sept. 11. U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011.
“There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” a senior administration official said.
It remains unclear how Biden’s move would affect a planned 10-day summit about Afghanistan starting on April 24 in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar.
The Taliban, which was ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces, said it would not take part in any summits that would make decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had left the country.
‘NO GOOD WAY’ TO WITHDRAW
Critics said the departure plan appeared to surrender Afghanistan to an uncertain fate, something that experts say was perhaps inevitable.
“There is no good way that the U.S. can withdraw from Afghanistan. It cannot claim victory, and it cannot wait indefinitely for some cosmetic form of peace,” said Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called it a very difficult decision for Biden.
“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.
U.S. officials can claim to have, years ago, decimated al Qaeda’s core leadership in the region. But ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda elements persist.
By withdrawing without a convincing victory, the United States exposes itself to accusations that such a withdrawal amounts to an acknowledgement of defeat.
The war began with a hunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the Islamist terrorist group’s Sept. 11 attacks, in which hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 civilians. Bin Laden was assassinated in 2011 by a squad of US commandos at his Pakistan hideout.
Successive US presidents vowed to withdraw from Afghanistan, but their expectations were dashed by worries about Afghan security forces, widespread corruption in Afghanistan, and the tenacity of a Taliban insurgency that found safe refuge across the border in Pakistan.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of planning to “turn tail and abandon the fight in Afghanistan.”
“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” McConnell said, adding that effective counterterrorism operations require presence and partners on the ground.
Even Biden’s congressional allies were concerned on Tuesday about the effect of a withdrawal on human rights, given the strides made in Afghanistan over the last two decades, especially for women and girls.
According to the senior administration official, US troops are not the only option for protecting human rights achievements, and that “aggressive diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic measures” are needed instead.