US President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday 14 April that the US military would withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by 11 September of this year, which would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.
“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 to a fifth”.
In his address, Biden reminded listeners that in 2001 he supported the US going to war in Afghanistan. But as vice-president to Barack Obama, Biden distinguished himself by pushing back against the 2009 troop “surge”.
In 2014, Obama announced his intention to “conclude the war responsibly”. By 2015, US presence in Afghanistan had dramatically decreased, but about 10,000 US troops still remained. Last year, the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw by 1 May 2021.
Now, Biden says, that US presence in Afghanistan must end. Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 2001 attacks, was killed by US forces a decade ago. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result”, said Biden, making clear that the plan is to withdraw regardless of how things do or don’t change in terms of conditions in Afghanistan between now and September.
Biden said that the US would begin its withdrawal on 1 May in keeping with the spirit of the Trump administration’s agreement, and threatened to respond “with all the tools at our disposal” if the Taliban attacks the US while it’s drawing down.
The new president also stressed that the US will continue to offer financial assistance to Afghan forces, as well as diplomatic and humanitarian support, and will continue to fight terrorism around the world.
Biden noted that there will be those who argue that diplomacy cannot succeed without the military. “We gave that argument a decade,” he said. “It’s never been effective.”
There are also those, he acknowledged, who would say that the US cannot retreat. (“It is a retreat in the face of an enemy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday 13 April after learning of Biden’s intention to withdraw. “Foreign terrorists will not leave the United States alone simply because our politicians have grown tired of taking the fight to them.”)
Biden rejected this, too. “We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021”, he said.
Biden noted that some say that they want to leave Afghanistan, just not now, not yet. (“Withdrawal of U.S. troops must be based on the facts on the ground, not arbitrary deadlines”, tweeted senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. “After all that our service members have sacrificed, we must ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists who seek to harm America.”)
“When will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two years? Ten more years?” Biden asked. “That’s how we got here”.
There are still unknowns, of course. We will only know on 11 September 2021, if US forces have successfully left Afghanistan by 11 September 2021.
But Biden’s stated intention, at least, is that they will be gone.
“It’s time to end America’s longest war”, he said. “It’s time for American troops to come home.”