Congress demands answers on Afghanistan withdrawal
President Biden announced on April 14 that the United States will withdraw all remaining forces from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2021. Given the persistent terrorist threats there and in neighboring Pakistan, the degradation of U.S. counterterrorism capability associated with the withdrawal, and the likelihood that the country once again could generate threats to the U.S. homeland, there are serious questions about the Biden administration’s decision.
It appears administration briefings to key committee members in the House and Senate last week did not go well, raising more questions than the briefings answered. If Biden proceeds to withdraw from Afghanistan based on a timeline rather than conditions on the ground, the administration will have another chance to attempt to answer questions — this time in writing.
That’s because the withdrawal will trigger a statutory requirement from Section 1215 of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and require the administration to submit a detailed report to Congress regarding the effects of withdrawal on key U.S. interests. Under the law, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is required to submit the report when the total number of forces in Afghanistan drops below 2,000 troops.
The United States is likely to hit that mark quite soon. There are roughly 2,500 service members in Afghanistan now — and that number may come down quickly. A senior Biden administration official said the drawdown will begin before May 1 and conclude “no later than the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but potentially a meaningful amount of time before then.”
The statute requires the administration’s report to address a wide range of topics. Perhaps most notably, Section 1215 (b)(1) requires the administration to provide an assessment of how the force reduction will affect: counterterrorism operations; U.S. force protection; efforts to deny international terrorists safe haven; the threat posed by the Taliban and other terrorists to the U.S. and its allies and partners; and the capacity of Afghan forces to operate and conduct effective counterterrorism and security operations.
Those are exactly the right questions for Congress to be asking. Initial indications suggest the Biden administration does not have satisfying answers.
As the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on April 20, “That there has not been another 9/11 is not an accident.” Indeed, it is the presence of U.S. and coalition forces that enable effective operations to root out terror threats and disrupt potential attacks.
“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” CIA Director William J. Burns said the same day as Biden’s speech. “That’s simply a fact.”
It is undeniable that removing those forces will make the mission of defending against jihadists more difficult.
Perhaps that fact, coupled with lessons learned from the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, is why the military chain of command advised Biden against his timeline-based withdrawal.
This reduced ability to detect and respond to terror threats is a problem given realities on the ground. The Taliban, as FDD’s Long War Journal has detailed for years, has remained closely aligned with al Qaeda and its broader network. It is now poised to expand its already significant operational presence and influence throughout Afghanistan. That could invite an all-out civil war, endanger the Afghan government, and create new opportunities for international terror attacks.
That is why Section 1215 and earlier versions of the reporting requirement enjoy bipartisan support. Lawmakers of both parties have expressed concern regarding a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan and what that might mean for Afghans and Americans alike.
In a resounding 45-11 bipartisan vote in July 2020, the House Armed Services Committee voted to include in the defense bill a similar but tougher provision led by Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) that would have imposed even more requirements on the administration. Following negotiations between the Senate and House, Section 1215 was included in the final bill, which passed the Senate and House by votes of 84-13 and 335-78, respectively.
Thankfully, Congress required that the report be both written and unclassified, enabling members of Congress to share it with the American people.
But the provision does permit a classified annex. If past behavior is any indication, the executive branch may attempt to move unclassified information into the classified annex because that information may be unhelpful or inconvenient to their policy. Congress should make clear that would be unacceptable.
It is important to note that Section 1215 also includes a waiver that Biden could use to avoid submitting the report. To exercise that waiver, the president would need to certify in writing that not providing the information is in the “national security interests of the United States” — and would need to provide a detailed explanation justifying that assertion.
That would be a difficult argument for the Biden administration to make. After all, if a withdrawal by September that ignores conditions on the ground and the advice of commanders is in the national security interest, the Biden administration should be able to answer tough questions and defend the decision in the light of day.
If the Biden administration is unable or unwilling to do so, that sends a disturbing signal regarding the merit of the rationale for the withdrawal. Regardless, in the coming weeks and months, Congress should utilize all of its oversight and legislative powers to push the administration to minimize the damage to American national security that Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal is about to inflict.
Brad Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He was a national security advisor to two members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees and served as a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman.
Maseh Zarif is director of congressional relations at FDD Action. He previously served as a professional staff member on the House Homeland Security Committee. Follow him on Twitter @masehz.