Five questions about Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan
President Biden’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September would be a historic achievement closing a 20-year chapter of U.S. history that saw more than 2,300 troops killed and cost upward of $1 trillion.
But big questions remain about what Afghanistan will look like when U.S. troops are gone, as well as how the United States will ensure its interests in the region are met and continue to support the Afghan government non-militarily.
Here are five questions about Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal.
Will the Taliban take over?
This has been one of the biggest questions hanging over a potential U.S. withdrawal for the better part of two decades.
In the most dire predictions from regional experts and others, a U.S. military withdrawal could mean the collapse of the Afghan government and a return to power for the Taliban, which in turn would roll back the tenuous gains made by Afghan women and minorities over the last 20 years and allow al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to flourish anew.
A U.S. intelligence report released this past week warned the Taliban “is confident it can achieve military victory” and that the Afghan government “will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
But the Biden administration insists it will vigorously pursue diplomatic efforts to stave off the worst-case scenarios with a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government.
“While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” Biden said in his speech announcing the withdrawal.
Still, efforts at a peace agreement have yielded little fruit so far. The Taliban has yet to agree to attend a U.S.-backed peace conference in Turkey this month, saying it will no longer participate in talks until after all “foreign forces” depart Afghanistan.
Is the war just moving ‘over the horizon’?
While troops are set to leave Afghanistan, the United States still has an interest in making sure al Qaeda and ISIS don’t regain the strength to attack the homeland.
And administration officials have been suggesting troops will stay close to Afghanistan to conduct what the military calls “over the horizon” operations, or operations launched from outside Afghanistan.
In his speech, Biden pledged he will “reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent reemergence of terrorists, of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon.”
Speaking from Brussels shortly after Biden’s announcement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to provide specifics about where counterterrorism forces might be positioned, but stressed the “president has been clear that we will not allow our homeland to be attacked again from the spaces of Afghanistan.”
“In terms of our ability to acquire targets and engage them in places where we are not, actually, you’re seeing us do that each and every day in places around the globe, whether that be in remote places in Africa or other places. We have the reach and the ability to in fact do that,” Austin told reporters.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby added at a press briefing Friday decisions about “follow on deployments” for troops in Afghanistan have not yet been made. But, he added, he “would suspect that most, if not all, will be returning to stateside bases” since “we have a robust capability in the Central Command area of operations as it is.”
While providing a tepid endorsement of Biden’s decision, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) urged Biden to build up counterterrorism capabilities surrounding Afghanistan.
“We must transition to a new type of presence, leaving the country but staying in the region in a meaningful capacity,” Reed said in a floor speech. “We must build an anti-terrorist infrastructure on the periphery of Afghanistan. We must continue to direct the proper level of attention, intelligence and resources to evaluate the evolving terrorist threat in the region.”
What will happen to Afghans who helped US troops?
One of the fears of a potential Taliban takeover is what that would mean for the lives and safety of Afghans who served as translators or otherwise assisted U.S. personnel.
The United States has a special program for them to come to the United States called the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. Last year, Congress authorized another 4,000 SIVs for Afghans, for a total of 26,500 since 2014.
But the application process, which by law is supposed to take no more than nine months, on average takes about four years. And more than 18,000 Afghans are already awaiting a decision on their applications.
Pressed after Biden announced the withdrawal whether the United States will take in Afghan asylum seekers, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday he is “committed” to the SIV program but did not address the issue of the backlog.
Lawmakers who support Biden’s withdrawal say boosting the SIV program will be critical amid the pullout.
“Thousands of Afghanis, men and women, who served as translators, served alongside us in a great personal risk to themselves and their families, are now at risk as we draw down,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told reporters Thursday. “We have to make sure that we are drastically ramping up the Special Immigrant Visa Program and other processes to get folks out of the country for their own safety and the safety of their families in the months ahead.”
Will the US continue funding Afghan forces?
Biden vowed the United States would continue providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces, with Austin adding the administration would work to maintain funding.
“We will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces,” Austin said.
But approving funding is Congress’s job.
Lawmakers have appropriated about $88 billion to support Afghan security forces over the past two decades, including $3 billion for this year.
Democrats say they expect congressional support for funding to continue, but acknowledge oversight will be more difficult without a U.S. military presence.
“There should still be appetite for a support package because pulling out the combat troops is one thing, but reducing our financial support is another challenge,” Crow said. “Now, providing that financial support with fewer personnel there actually becomes harder, right, because there’s less oversight. We have to make sure we’re combating corruption, that the support and resources are getting to where they need to be.”
“But certainly, reducing that money, I think, would be a major detriment,” he added.
Contractor support has also been critical to Afghan forces’ ability to maintain their equipment. More than 16,000 contractors remain in Afghanistan, including more than 6,000 Americans, according to Central Command data.
Kirby said Friday that decisions have not been made about whether contractors will withdraw at the same time as service members.
Could Biden change his mind?
Biden presented his decision as the definitive end to U.S. military involvement in America’s longest war.
But it wouldn’t be the first time Americans were promised an end only for the president to later backtrack.
Former President Obama declared an end to combat operations in 2014 and laid out plans to withdraw by the time he left office. Former President Trump also repeatedly pushed for a full withdrawal, but left office with the 2,500 or so troops there now.
Republicans are certainly hoping to convince Biden to reverse course, with Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, calling on Biden to “reconsider his political, calendar-based approach to withdrawing from Afghanistan.”
“It is irresponsible to leave when conditions on the ground would lead to a civil war in Afghanistan and allow the country to become a safe haven for terrorists once again,” Inhofe and Rogers said in a joint statement.
The difference between Biden and his predecessors, though, is Biden is explicitly saying his decision is not tied to conditions on the ground, suggesting he won’t backtrack if conditions in Afghanistan worsen between now and September.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” Biden said.
Still, after nearly 20 years, it’s difficult to shake off questions about whether this is truly the end.
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