OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden can’t picture troops in Afghanistan next year | Top general says US needed in Taliban fight | Trump Somalia withdrawal comes with downsides

President Biden gives his first formal press conference
UPI Photo

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: President Biden on Thursday was unable to offer a firm timeline for getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan but said he “can’t picture” American forces still being there next year.

“It is not my intention to stay there for a long time. But the question is how and under what circumstances do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it’s not able to be worked out to begin with, how is that done?” Biden said. “But we are not staying a long time.”

“We will leave. The question is when we leave,” Biden added.

The numbers now: Officially, the United States has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, a number reached in the waning days of former President Trump’s tenure. The Trump administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban calling for all remaining U.S. troops to leave by May if the Taliban upholds certain commitments such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

But Biden has acknowledged that it will be difficult to maintain that deadline if the U.S. is to withdraw its forces in a “safe and orderly way.” Discussions are ongoing with NATO allies, Biden said, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been engaged on the issue.

Read more here.



Support from U.S. troops is “critical” to Afghan forces’ ability to fight the Taliban and other militants, a top general said Thursday.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Robert Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, noted he recently met with his Afghan counterpart and found that “progress has been made” and that his counterpart is a “very dedicated commander.”

But, Clarke added, “I think the capabilities that the U.S. provides for the Afghans to be able to combat the Taliban and other threats that reside in Afghanistan are critical to their success.”

Decision needed: The assessment that Afghan forces still need U.S. military support after two decades of war comes as President Biden is deciding whether to adhere to a May 1 deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops that was set in a deal with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration last year.

Biden and other officials have not explicitly said troops will stay past May, but they have increasingly hinted that will be the case.

“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” Biden said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, citing the logistics of withdrawing with just a little more than a month until the deadline. “If we leave, we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way.”

Commitments needed, too: U.S. military officials have repeatedly said the Taliban has yet to meet its commitments, something Clarke echoed at Thursday’s Senate hearing.

“It’s clear that the Taliban have not upheld what they said they would do and reduce the violence,” Clarke said when asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) about a rash of targeted assassinations of civil society leaders suspected to have been carried out by the Taliban.



The Trump administration’s movement of most U.S. troops out of Somalia to other countries in Africa “probably” had “significant downsides,” a Pentagon official said Thursday.

“From my perspective, there is probably significant downsides to the pullout from the perspective of cost and effectiveness,” Christopher Maier, acting assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But that’s my initial look, and this will have to be an interagency look.”

Drawdown details: In the final months of his tenure, former President Trump ordered almost all of the 700 U.S. troops that were in Somalia to withdraw. The troops were in Somalia to help local security forces fight al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab and the local ISIS affiliate.

At the time, the Pentagon insisted Trump’s order was “not a change in U.S. policy” and U.S. Africa Command held that troops “remain capable of striking al-Shabaab at the time and place of our choosing—they should not test us.”

While Trump framed the move as part of his efforts to end “forever wars,” most of the U.S. troops that left Somalia were repositioned to other nearby countries such as Kenya and Djibouti and have continued to conduct operations inside Somalia.

A new look: The Biden administration is in the midst of a review of U.S. military posture around the globe that could result in a reversal of Trump’s withdrawal or other changes to the U.S. military footprint in Africa.

Maier, who led the Pentagon’s ISIS task force during the Trump administration until he was fired in Trump’s post-election Pentagon purge and was brought back into the department by Biden, alluded to the posture review as he spoke Thursday about the Somalia withdrawal.

The effect of withdrawing from Somalia “is something that is being looked at both from the counterterrorism perspective, and the broader regional objectives we have in the Horn of Africa,” Maier said



A House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on “SOF Culture and Climate: The Future of the Force,” with outside experts and former defense officials at 11 a.m.

The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association will hold a virtual discussion on “The Digital Transformation of Weapons — Leveraging Digital Engineering to Propel AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) to the Future Fight,” with Air Force Col. Garry Haase, commander and director of the AFRL Munitions Directorate, at 11 a.m.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) will speak at a Hudson Institute webinar on “Confronting a New Era of Global Threats,” at 12 p.m.

A House Armed Services subpanel will hold a hearing on “Installation Resiliency: Lessons Learned from Winter Storm Uri and Beyond,” with Defense officials at 3 p.m.

And coming up next week: Former Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and former under secretary of Defense for policy Michèle Flournoy will participate in The Hill’s Future of Defense Summit at 12:30 p.m. March 29. RSVP today for event reminders.



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Tags Adam Kinzinger Afghanistan Antony Blinken Avril Haines Chuck Hagel Donald Trump Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden John Cornyn Pentagon Somalia Tammy Duckworth

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