A final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan will begin on 1 May, punctuating two decades of occupation as President Joe Biden aims to remove America’s footprint from a “forever war” that has cost thousands of lives, while the nation’s focus shifts to terror threats that have “metastasised” around the globe.
Mr Biden said he believed a US presence in Afghanistan should “be focused on the reason why we went in the first place – to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again”.
“We did that. We accomplished that objective,” he said on Wednesday in remarks from the Treaty Room at the White House, where former president George W Bush announced the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom on 7 October 2001.
“I said, among with others, we would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, if need be,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did, and we got him.”
But that was a decade ago, Mr Biden said, “and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since.”
“Since then, our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear,” he said.
The US will aim to pull troops from the country by 11 September, 20 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, adjusting a 1 May timeline previously negotiated by former president Donald Trump’s administration with the Taliban.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Mr Biden said. “I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
But the US will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” he said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the “safe, deliberate and coordinated withdrawal” of US forces from Afghanistan during remarks to global leaders and defence officials at Nato headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, hours before Mr Biden’s address.
Following the president’s remarks, Nato officials announced “there is no military solution to the challenges Afghanistan faces” and that a troop drawdown “will be orderly, coordinated and deliberate.”
“We plan to have the withdrawal of all US and Resolute Support Mission forces completed within a few months,” the announcement said.
Mr Biden also stressed the nation’s diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue, as well as its support for Afghanistan’s government and Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.
The US also will support peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban through the United Nations, and Mr Biden pledged to support the rights of Afghanistan’s women and girls through humanitarian assistance.
The number of US troops in Afghanistan has fluctuated from roughly 2,500 to 3,500, among roughly 9,600 Nato troops officially in the country.
Over the last two decades, the conflict has killed 2,200 American troops, wounded 20,000 others, and cost as much as $1 trillion.
More than 93,000 civilians, including women and children, have been killed or injured, according to an ongoing report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Among those civilian casualties, 31,425 were killed and 62,067 were injured.
The president has sought to pursue a strategy with Afghanistan relative to a vastly different terror outlook than one in the aftermath of 2001, as the administration shifts its “full attention on threats we face today,” he said.
Officials are “refining” efforts to “monitor and disrupt” terror threats “not only in Afghanistan but wherever they may arise, whether in Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere,” he added.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday that Mr Biden sought guidance from his national security team that did not “sugarcoat” their views on the impacts of the withdrawal. The president and White House officials shared the withdrawal decision within the past 36 hours with members of Congress, allied governments and the United Nations.
The president’s intelligence chiefs unveiled a global threat assessment this week signalling that the “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay” if the US and allied partners maintain plans to withdraw from the country.
“We assess that prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year,” according to the 2021 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Intelligence officials also said US ties to Afghanistan could complicate its relationship with Iran, which they said “will hedge its bets in Afghanistan, and its actions may threaten instability”.
“Iran publicly backs Afghan peace talks, but it is worried about a long-term US presence in Afghanistan,” the report said. “As a result, Iran is building ties with both the government in Kabul and the Taliban so it can take advantage of any political outcome.”
Mr Biden also spoke with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday to discuss “their continued commitment to a strong bilateral partnership” following the announcement of the US withdrawal, according to the White House.
Both men “reaffirmed their shared conviction that every effort should be made to achieve a political settlement so that the Afghan people can live in peace,” according to the administration’s summary of their call.
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