It is “time to end” America’s longest war with the unconditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, where they have spent two decades in a bloody, largely fruitless battle against the Taliban, US President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday.
Baptized as “eternal war”, the US military offensive in Afghanistan began in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
Now, 20 years later – after nearly 2,400 U.S. military and tens of thousands of Afghan deaths – Biden designates September 11 as the deadline before which the last U.S. soldiers have finally passed.
The war is at best in a stalemate.
The internationally backed government in Kabul has only weak control in the shards of the country, while the Taliban is growing in strength, with many predicting that the insurgency will seek to regain total power once the government’s US military umbrella is removed.
In a speech later Wednesday, Biden was to tell the Americans that it is time to accept reality that there is no alternative to a clean break.
“We cannot continue the cycle of expanding or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan in the hope of creating the ideal conditions for our withdrawal and expecting a different outcome,” he said, according to excerpts released prior to his speech.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over a US troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” he said. “I do not pass this responsibility on to one-fifth.”
The city’s decision is not a shock. The war is hugely unpopular with voters, and Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had committed to an even earlier exit on May 1.
Biden ally Senator Bernie Sanders called it “brave.”
However, there was immediate criticism from some quarters that the United States was abandoning the Afghan government and encouraging jihadist insurgency.
“Wars do not end when one side abandons the fight,” said influential Republican Rep. Liz Cheney.
“Withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan on September 11 will only stimulate the very jihadists who attacked our homeland that day 20 years ago.”
‘Recipe’ for eternal war
Biden should say in his speech that Washington will continue to support the Afghan government, not just “militarily”.
This will mark a profound shift in influence on the besieged government and its US and coalition-trained security forces.
A senior official said the U.S. military exit would be completed by 9/11.
Biden had previously considered stationing a remaining U.S. force to attack al-Qaeda or other international jihadist groups in Afghanistan or make withdrawal conditional on progress on the ground or in slow peace talks.
In the end, he decided to leave only staff to guard installations like the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, a senior official said.
“The president has judged that a condition-based approach, which has been the practice for the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the moment had arrived to bring the forces home and Washington would draw up a “coordinated” withdrawal plan with its NATO allies.
“Together, we have achieved the goals we set ourselves to achieve, and now is the time to bring our forces home,” Blinken said ahead of talks with NATO partners in Brussels.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said Wednesday that NATO would likely join the United States to withdraw its troops by September.
The Times reported that Britain would withdraw its approximately 750 troops, citing sources as “they would fight without US support due to dependence on US bases and infrastructure.”
The Biden official said the withdrawal would begin in May and that the delay was largely logistical, with troops possibly out of Afghanistan well before 9/11.
The official warned the Taliban – which observes a ceasefire with the United States but not with Afghan forces – not to strike coalition forces when they leave, saying that in response to any attack “we will strike back hard.”
But a threat assessment report released Tuesday by the director of the U.S. National Intelligence Service said the Taliban “is convinced it can achieve military victory.”
The upheaval raises major questions about the future of attempts to modernize Afghanistan, especially for Afghan women who have benefited from increased rights such as access to education.
The Taliban, which enforces a strict brand of Sunni Islam, banned women from schools, offices, music, and most of daily life during their 1996-2001 reign over large parts of Afghanistan. Two decades later, 40 percent of school children are girls.
Peace efforts in Turkey
The bid came as Turkey said it would host a US-backed peace conference from April 24 to May 4 that would bring together the Afghan government, the Taliban and international partners.
But Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban office in Qatar, said the rebels would not attend any conference on Afghanistan’s future “until all foreign forces withdraw completely.”
A decade ago, the United States had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The troop numbers at the end of Trump’s presidency had dropped to 2,500. As of February this year, NATO had about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.