Biden’s prediction on Afghanistan withdrawal spurs doubts
President Biden’s prediction that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by next year is being met with some skepticism.
Past predictions and vows, including from Biden himself, of an end date for America’s longest war have come and gone with troops still there years later.
Now, Biden is the commander in chief with the power to order all troops out if he wants.
But he is liable to face the same hurdles that thwarted his predecessors’ efforts to end U.S. involvement in the war, including grave warnings from military commanders and some lawmakers.
“I believe that President Biden is sincere when he says that U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by next year, and it’s absolutely critical that he sticks to this commitment. The problem is, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard such a promise,” said Erica Fein, advocacy director at progressive group Win Without War.
Officially, about 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan with the war in its 20th year.
Biden is facing a May 1 deadline to withdraw them all under an agreement with the Taliban signed last year by the Trump administration.
Under the deal, the U.S. withdrawal is supposed to be contingent on the Taliban fulfilling commitments including breaking from al Qaeda and reducing violence in Afghanistan — benchmarks the U.S. military has said the insurgents have yet to meet.
The White House said Friday that Biden has not yet made a decision on whether to withdraw by May, but on Thursday, Biden gave his clearest indication yet he will not follow that deadline.
“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” Biden said at a news conference Thursday, 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.”
But asked if U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan next year, Biden said he “can’t picture that being the case.”
“We are not staying a long time,” he said. “We will leave, the question is when we leave.”
Biden has predicted an end to the war before that did not come to fruition.
As vice president in 2012, Biden vowed that “we are leaving in 2014. Period.”
Then-President Obama did declare an end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014 with the intention of withdrawing by the end of his presidency.
Ultimately, though, Obama reversed plans to withdraw on the advice of his military advisers, leaving office with about 8,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Former President Trump also repeatedly pushed to withdraw from Afghanistan, railing against what he characterized as the U.S. military policing the world.
Trump continued to draw down even as the Taliban failed to abide by the agreement he made with them, leaving office with the fewest number of troops in the country since 2001. But he too did not accomplish a full withdrawal in the face of warnings from military commanders and lawmakers.
Biden is likely to face the same issues.
On Thursday morning before Biden made his prediction on withdrawing by next year, a top general told a Senate committee the Taliban is not adhering to its agreement with the United States and that Afghan forces still need U.S. help to fight them.
“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,” Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Clarke demurred when pressed if he’s given the Biden administration options to continue addressing terrorism threats in the region if U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, but said in general his command “will always provide options.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, also told reporters this past week that 2,500 troops for the foreseeable future is “an expense I’m willing to pay to keep stability in that country.”
“Until they start getting some real confidence that the Taliban is going to hold up their end of the bargain, I don’t see how we get out,” Roger said.
But Biden will also face pressure from the left to withdraw.
Fein, at Win Without War, said it’s “long past time” the United States stops “fighting an unwinnable war.”
“What U.S. president after U.S. president has been unwilling to fully recognize is that more U.S.-sponsored violence will only bring more conflict in Afghanistan,” she said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said this past week that while he thinks it’s “dangerous” to withdraw by May 1 because of the logistics of moving around thousands of troops and their equipment, he believes the United States has accomplished all it can in Afghanistan.
“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,” Smith said at an event hosted by Foreign Policy. “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.”
The Biden administration has been working to jump-start stalled talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In leaked documents published earlier this month by Afghan news outlet TOLOnews, Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed a temporary power-sharing agreement between government officials and the Taliban, describing it as a “transitional peace government” that would exist until a new constitution is written and new elections are held.
Turkey, with U.S. backing, is also hosting Afghan peace talks next month, following Russia-backed talks in Moscow this month that ended with a joint statement from Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan calling on the warring parties to reduce violence and resolve the conflict.
Scott Worden, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia programs, said he thinks it’s “more likely now than ever” U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan within the year, but that much depends on the peace efforts.
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done if our departure is going to leave stability behind us,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a nascent and fragile peace process, and if U.S. troops leave without some kind of agreement between the Afghans, not just between us and the Taliban, then the risk of civil war is high, and that could undermine our overall objective of reducing terrorist safe havens and a threat to the homeland.”