Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal
President Biden is under fire from lawmakers in both parties over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that prompted the longest war in American history.
Biden is expected to announce Wednesday that he will order the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by September, pushing back a May deadline agreed to by the Taliban and the Trump administration. If he sticks with his plan, it would be a historic step that the previous two administrations vowed but failed to accomplish.
The move, however, is sparking pushback from Republicans and some Democrats who warn that leaving too early or without the right conditions could result in a sharp backslide.
The GOP backlash was swift, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanding Biden explain publicly why he’s “abandoning our partners and retreating in the face of the Taliban.”
“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake. It is a retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished and abdication of American leadership,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
Members of his caucus were equally blunt.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it a “disaster in the making” and “dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous.”
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that the decision was “outrageous.”
“You know, we’re talking about making a political decision on something where there isn’t any justification,” he said. “It should be conditions-based. … It’s the wrong thing.”
House Republicans were similarly incensed, with Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas) saying the withdrawal plan “shows a complete disregard for the realities on the ground, and will not only put Afghans at risk, but endanger the lives of U.S. citizens at home and abroad.”
Biden will formally roll out his plan on Wednesday, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying he will talk about “the way forward in Afghanistan.”
Ahead of the speech, administration officials briefed lawmakers on the plan, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Brussels, where they were expected to brief NATO officials on Biden’s decision.
The administration has defended the planned drawdown amid the backlash, with a senior administration official telling reporters that Biden arrived at his decision after a “rigorous policy review.”
“We judge the threat against the homeland now emanating from Afghanistan to be at a level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban,” the official said.
The Pentagon says it has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan at this time.
Under the deal with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration last year, the U.S. withdrawal is supposed to be contingent on insurgents meeting certain commitments, including breaking from al Qaeda and reducing violence in the country. But U.S. military officials have repeatedly said the Taliban has yet to uphold those commitments.
The administration official said Tuesday that in conjunction with the military withdrawal, the United States will be “putting the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”
But Democrats who joined Republicans in opposing Biden’s decision warned that the withdrawal could be viewed as abandoning Afghans, particularly women, after making progress on human and civil rights.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said she was “very disappointed” by Biden’s decision.
“The U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave [without] verifiable assurances of a secure future,” she said.
Shaheen added that the administration needs to make “every effort between now and September to safeguard the progress made and support our partners in the formation of an inclusive, transitional government.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) was briefed this week by Austin on the decision.
When asked if he supported Biden’s plans, Reed paused before saying: “You know, there is no easy answer.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he supports Biden’s decision, adding: “What choices does he have?”
“There are no good choices,” he said. “I worry that the Afghan government itself has never taken seriously enough the needs of things we’ll have to do.”
In what could become a cudgel for critics of Biden’s decision, the U.S. intelligence community said Tuesday morning before news broke of the withdrawal that it assesses “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year.”
“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,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in its annual unclassified worldwide threats assessment.
National security officials are scheduled to testify publicly Wednesday about the report before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Bipartisan opposition stymied plans to withdraw by both former Presidents Trump and Obama. But the Biden administration official insisted Tuesday that conditions in Afghanistan will not move the new deadline.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official said.
Even as Biden faced bipartisan criticism for his decision, he also garnered bipartisan praise — underscoring the complex political lines on Afghanistan and the decades-long presence by the U.S.
“President Biden should withdraw troops in Afghanistan by May 1, as the Trump administration planned, but better late than never. It’s time for this forever war to end,” tweeted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), viewed as a potential 2024 presidential contender.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), known for his libertarian-leaning views, said he was “glad to see us moving out.”
“I’ve got a daughter who was an infant when that war started, she’s now halfway through college. I want to see us get out of there, and a timely withdrawal seems like a good thing to me,” he said.
Biden also faced pressure from his own progressive wing to withdraw U.S. troops. Progressives argued on Tuesday that the moment envisioned by supporters of maintaining a U.S. presence in Afghanistan won’t exist.
“The endless war cheerleaders have been saying for 15 years that if we just stay in Afghanistan a little longer, the Taliban will give up and the Afghan government will get their act together. And they will say it for the next 15 years if we leave our troops there indefinitely,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a tweet.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Biden’s decision “brave and right,” while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added that she “strongly support[s] President Biden’s commitment to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.”
Progressives also touted the historic nature of Biden’s decision.
“We are finally doing the right thing, and we’re now on the cusp of ending the longest war in American history for good,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the lone lawmaker to vote against starting the war in 2001, said in a statement.
Updated at 6:56 p.m.