Biden admitted in a White House speech that the United States’ priorities in Afghanistan have been “increasingly unclear” over the last decade. He set a deadline of Sept. 11 for the withdrawal of all 2,500 US troops now stationed in Afghanistan, precisely 20 years after al Qaeda’s attacks on the US that sparked the conflict.
But by pulling out without a clear victory, the United States opens itself to criticism that a withdrawal represents a de facto admission of failure for American military strategy.
“It was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives,” Biden said, noting that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in 2011 and saying that organization has been “degraded” in Afghanistan.
“And it’s time to end the forever war,” Biden added.
The war has claimed the lives of 2,448 American service members and has cost the country an estimated $2 trillion. The number of US troops in Afghanistan stood at more than 100,000 in 2011.
The Democratic president faced a May 1 withdrawal deadline imposed by his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, who attempted but failed to withdraw troops before taking office in January. Instead, Biden stated that the final withdrawal would begin on May 1 and end on September 11.
Through withdrawing, Biden is accepting threats at the outset of his presidency that proved too big for his predecessors, such as the possibility of al Qaeda reconstituting itself or the Taliban insurgency destabilising the US-backed government in Kabul.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NATO officials in Brussels that foreign troops under NATO command in Afghanistan would depart in coordination with the US withdrawal by September 11, after Germany said it will meet American plans.
Blinken also spoke by phone with Pakistan’s army chief on Wednesday, where they addressed the peace process, according to the Pakistani military’s media wing.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wrote on Twitter that he spoke with Biden and respects the U.S. decision. Ghani added that “we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition” and “we will continue to work with our US/NATO partners in the ongoing peace efforts.”
A conference on Afghanistan is scheduled to begin on April 24 in Istanbul, with participation from the United Nations and Qatar.
The Taliban, who were deposed from control by US-led forces in 2001, claimed that they would not participate in any meetings concerning decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had withdrawn. On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid urged the US to honour the agreement the organisation signed with Trump’s administration.
“If the agreement is committed to, the remaining problems will also be solved,” Mujahid wrote on Twitter. “If the agreement is not committed to … the problems will certainly increase.”
Biden rejected the idea that U.S. troops could provide the leverage needed for peace, saying: “We gave that argument a decade. It has never proven effective.”
“American troops shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries,” Biden said.
Biden also said the threat of terrorism was not limited to a single country and that leaving American forces in one foreign land at great financial cost does not make sense.
The president made the decision personal, invoking the memory of his late son who served in Iraq and showing a card he carried with the number of U.S. troops killed and wounded in Afghanistan. Visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Biden later said the decision to withdraw was not hard.
“To me, it was absolutely clear,” Biden said.
In Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, officials said they would carry on with peace talks and their forces defending the country.
“Now that there is an announcement on foreign troops withdrawal within several months, we need to find a way to coexist,” said Abdullah Abdullah, a top peace official and former presidential candidate. “We believe that there is no winner in Afghan conflicts and we hope the Taliban realize that too.”
Officials in the United States can claim to have removed al Qaeda’s central leadership in the region years ago, following the assassination of bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan in 2011. However, relations between Taliban and al Qaeda elements continue to exist, and peace and stability remain elusive.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, was among Biden’s harshest opponents, claiming that the withdrawal would escalate the war and potentially revive al Qaeda.
“What do we lose by pulling out? We lose that insurance policy against another 9/11,” Graham said.
Nonetheless, opponents of the US military intervention argue it simply failed to persuade the Taliban to resolve the war on American terms. Some analysts attribute the situation to widespread graft in Afghanistan, Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan, and unnecessarily optimistic training targets for Afghan security forces.
Biden opposed previous US efforts to somehow unite Afghans, a task that defied centuries of tradition.
“It has never been done before,” Biden said.