Top Dem: ‘Dangerous’ to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1
Fully withdrawing from Afghanistan by May 1 would be “dangerous,” the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday.
At an event hosted by Foreign Policy, Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) added that based on his conversations with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the “general feeling” in the Biden administration is that the deadline is “too soon” to withdraw.
“Running for the exits pell-mell by May 1 is dangerous,” Smith said. “It is dangerous to our troops. I don’t want to leave a bunch of high-grade military equipment behind for whoever grabs it, either. That too is dangerous. It is a purely logistical argument.”
At this point, anyone who has a plan to withdraw thousands of U.S. and NATO troops, support staff and equipment by then would be a “miracle worker,” he added.
May 1 is the deadline for a full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan set by a deal with the Taliban negotiated by the Trump administration last year. Officially, the United States has about 2,500 troops still in Afghanistan.
Under the agreement, the withdrawal is contingent on the Taliban fulfilling commitments including breaking with al Qaeda and lowering the level of violence in the country, which experts say the group has failed to do.
The Biden administration has been reviewing the deal since it took office and has not said whether it will follow the May 1 deadline.
But administration officials have said they believe the violence remains too high.
“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Austin said this weekend after visiting Afghanistan. “We’d really like to see that violence come down. And I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work.”
President Biden, for his part, said last week it would be “tough” to withdraw by May 1, but stressed he hadn’t yet made a decision.
The fact that just a little more than a month remains until the withdrawal deadline has led to speculation the Biden administration will not meet it, given the logistical challenges of a safe and orderly withdrawal.
“I’m of the opinion that physically, if they wanted to leave by May 1, it’s not possible now for us to leave and get out of there in a safe manner and bring the things home that we have over there,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday. “So I think by inaction, they’ve made it clear they’re not going to be out there by May 1.”
Asked Wednesday about Smith’s comments, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby referred back to Austin’s remarks from his trip in Afghanistan.
Austin “has confidence that if a decision is made to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, he’s confident that Gen. McKenzie and Gen. Miller will be able to do so in a safe and orderly, effective way,” Kirby said at a press briefing, referring to U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie and U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Scott Miller.
Kirby also declined to answer a question on whether Smith was accurately characterizing the Pentagon’s thinking when he said the “general feeling” is that May 1 is “too soon.”
In his comments, Smith acknowledged that staying beyond the beginning of May could lead to attacks on U.S. forces from the Taliban, who have largely refrained from direct attacks on U.S. troops since signing the deal even as it steps up attacks on Afghan forces.
“Our troops have been relatively safe. If that changes on day one, that’s a problem, so job one is to try to get back in and talk with the Taliban about at least giving us a little bit more time,” Smith said.
Smith also stressed, however, he does not believe there is much more the United States can accomplish in Afghanistan after 20 years of war and said he supports withdrawing “responsibly.”
“I do not believe that in six or eight months, we’re going to magically have trained that last Afghan that gets them to get along peacefully,” he said. “At this point, we’ve done what we can do. I don’t know what the future of Afghanistan is. I’m not terribly optimistic about it, but I don’t think that lack of optimism changes if the U.S. stays for another year or another 10. I think in that regard, we’ve learned the limits of what we can do there, and it is time to change our policy and pull out responsibly.”
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