WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is planning to withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan and will complete the pullout before Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked the United States’ longest war, according to a senior U.S. official.
The plan, which Biden is expected to announce this week, means that a portion of the few thousand troops in Afghanistan will remain after May 1, a deadline the Trump administration set last year in a deal with the Taliban. White House officials feared that pulling out all U.S. troops by that deadline would undercut efforts to settle the war between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the official said.
Biden believes “there is no viable end to the war — militarily viable end to the war — in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “He’s had that view for some time now.”
With a firm deadline for departure, U.S. officials are hopeful that the Taliban will not escalate attacks on U.S. bases and on Afghan security forces in coming months. The Taliban was driven out of Kabul when the United States invaded in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida, the militant group led by Osama bin Laden that had taken refuge in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said that raids by special operations troops based outside the country as well as airstrikes could be employed if intelligence found that al-Qaida posed a growing threat. Officials are planning to keep a small contingent of Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the capital, to provide security.
The announcement of a pullout plan comes only a day after Taliban officials balked at participating in U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Afghan government, planned for later this week in Istanbul.
U.S. officials say they are still seeking Taliban participation and an agreement to reduce attacks in hopes of creating a climate for a peace settlement. A formal invitation from Turkey to the Taliban and to Afghan government officials for talks beginning April 24 was issued Tuesday.
But the U.S. announcement of an exit timetable is likely to only confirm the Taliban view that it has won the conflict against the United States, making a peace deal even more elusive. U.S. officials defended the gains achieved in Afghanistan in the last two decades, noting that a massive infusion of foreign aid has improved education and women’s rights and has reduced maternal mortality, especially in cities including Kabul.
“A lot has changed in two decades,” said the senior U.S. official. “We will do all we can working with the international community to preserve those gains, but not with U.S. troops on the ground.”
But many of those gains could be at risk if fighting intensifies between the Taliban and Afghan government troops, as many analysts expect.
“They think they can pull out and try to manage this thing from afar,” said Asfandyar Mir, an Afghan analyst at Stanford University. “The goal is to have a U.S. withdrawal which is not embarrassing.”
Officially there are 2,500 troops in Afghanistan now, but that doesn’t count special operations forces and other units who rotate in temporarily and can increase the number to as much as 3,500 or more.
Still, that’s the lowest troop level the U.S. has had in Afghanistan since early in the war. At its height, nearly 100,000 troops were there.
Along with the U.S. forces, there are 8,500 troops from other countries, most of who are likely to depart as well.
The last U.S. combat casualties were in February 2020, when two soldiers were killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan.
Biden rebuffed recommendations from senior Pentagon commanders that U.S. troops remain indefinitely or that withdrawals come only when security conditions improve.
Pentagon officials in the last three administrations have managed to delay a final pullout in part by arguing for a “conditions-based” withdrawal. But Biden rejected that approach, the senior U.S. official said.
“This is not conditions based. The president has judged that a conditions based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” he said.
Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top American commander in Kabul, had warned recently that a rapid U.S. withdrawal would leave the Afghan armed forces without vital support, especially for its fledgling air force, which relies on contractors to maintain its planes and helicopters.
“When you start talking about removing our presence ... certain things like air, air support and maintenance of that air support becomes more and more problematic,” Miller said in an interview in March.
Immediate reaction from lawmakers in Washington was mixed, with many questioning whether the withdrawal will sacrifice stability in Afghanistan.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opposed former President Donald Trump’s previous deal with the Taliban, said removing military personnel would be a “grave mistake. It is a retreat and abdication of American leadership.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he wanted to hear more from the Biden administration on the decision.
“The view is, we don’t have enough troops there to change the tide and make a difference, so if we are not going to do that, why keep the troops that are there and put them at risk? Empower the Afghan security enforces even more, be ready to strike if we have a resurgence of al-Qaida and company,” he said. “So I understand all of that thinking. I just am concerned that after so much blood and national treasure that we don’t lose what we were seeking to achieve.”