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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 31, 2021

Joe Biden declares the war in Afghanistan over

Hours after the last C-17 transport jet departed Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, President Joe Biden defended his decision to get all American forces out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31.

"When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war," Biden said in a White House speech Aug. 31. "Today, I've honored that commitment."

After nearly two decades of fighting, thousands of casualties and over $2 trillion in spending, the United States has little to show for its effort. The U.S.-backed Afghan forces collapsed, and the Taliban now control the country.

Biden praised the skill and courage of the American soldiers who helped evacuate 120,000 people in 17 days, and said Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the 13 men and women in uniform who were killed by a suicide bomber from the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State.

Despite those losses, Biden called the evacuation a success, and said the military had long ago accomplished the key mission of preventing terrorists from launching attacks on the U.S. from Afghan soil. Al-Qaida, which planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attack from Afghanistan, was now decimated, Biden said.

Beyond that, he said, the U.S. had no vital interest in the country. To remain in Afghanistan, he argued, would only divert the U.S. from dealing with real threats and real needs to invest at home.

Criticism over aftermath of Taliban takeover

Biden has faced withering criticism for the initially chaotic evacuation scene at the airport, and the deaths of the American service members. He argued that any evacuation would be difficult and dangerous.

Foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon at Brookings, a Washington policy center, partly agreed, but said Biden's firm departure date made things harder.

"Once the decision to leave was made, we lost control of events such that no scenario was likely to be smooth or desirable," O'Hanlon said. "That's why I opposed the decision so strongly."

After Biden's speech, Republicans focused on the 100 to 200 Americans who are still in Afghanistan.

"He's claiming 'victory' after stranding hundreds of Americans and losing 13 brave service members," tweeted Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. "Joe Biden isn't fit to be president."

"The president of the United States is abandoning Americans in a terrorist war zone, and he cannot be bothered to answer a single question from the press," House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said.

McCarthy and his fellow House Republicans pushed for a vote to prohibit Biden from pulling the last troops out until "every American is safely home."

Biden said the remaining Americans are primarily dual citizens, and he said that since March, the administration had reached out 19 times with offers of help to leave. He said the Taliban have gone on radio and television promising safe passage, and that the U.N. Security Council, which includes China and Russia, passed a resolution calling on the Taliban to live up to that promise.

Biden cast his decision as one between ending the war, or continuing it indefinitely, at the cost of more money and American lives. He dismissed those who argued recently that the U.S. could have remained in some low-cost, low-risk posture.

"There's nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war," Biden said. "It's time to end the war in Afghanistan, and close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice. It's time to look at the future, not the past."

U.S. involvement in Yemen

Biden's full promise went beyond Afghanistan. He said the U.S. would focus on al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.

As he has said many times, leaving Afghanistan allows America to target its effort on al-Qaida and ISIS in other nations. Biden announced in February that the U.S. will end its role in Saudi attacks in Yemen. He said American support for offensive operations and "relevant" arm sales to the Saudis would end.

In June, Biden said in a letter to Congress that American forces were helping Saudi Arabia with "military advice and limited information to regional forces for defensive and training purposes only as they relate to the Saudi-led Coalition's campaign against the Houthis in Yemen." 

That seems like the sort of aid that allows the Saudis to maintain their military actions in Yemen.

We see clear progress on the first two parts of Biden's promise, but the situation in Yemen is mixed. For now, we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson July 12, 2021

U.S. continues its military drawdown in Afghanistan

The U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan has continued into July, with all signs pointing to a full exit by Sept. 11, 2021, as President Joe Biden has pledged.

The United States has been in Afghanistan militarily since the 9/11 attacks almost 20 years ago. 

"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build," Biden said on July 8. "And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."

Biden added that "the status quo was not an option. Staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties, American men and women back in the middle of a civil war. And we would have run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops."

Under President Donald Trump, the United States and the Taliban agreed to a May 1, 2021, U.S. withdrawal deadline, with the Taliban pledging to stop attacks on foreign forces and to enter negotiations with the Afghan government.

Biden announced on April 14 that the U.S. military would exit the country, which triggered a series of developments to meet that deadline.

• The military left Bagram Air Base, its last base in Afghanistan, on July 2. It was undertaken in the middle of the night, which was for security reasons, the military said.

• Biden delivered a speech from the White House on July 8 billed as addressing "the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan."

"When I announced our drawdown in April, I said we would be out by September, and we're on track to meet that target," Biden said. "Our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on Aug. 31. The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart."

• The top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Austin S. Miller, stepped down after three years in his position. 

The accelerating U.S. departure has bolstered the military position of the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic group that wants a major role in the country's future. As of July 10, the Taliban effectively controlled 215 districts in Afghanistan, compared to 73 controlled by the government and 119 that are contested, according to data from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Backers of a continued U.S. military presence worry that the Afghan government could fall under Taliban pressure, derailing the ongoing, but stalled, negotiations over the country's political future.

In his speech, Biden rejected the idea that a Taliban military takeover was inevitable, saying Afghanistan has "300,000 well-equipped (troops) — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable."

Experts said that Biden has decided to stick to his campaign promise due to public opinion back home.

A Morning Consult survey taken after Biden's April announcement found 69% support for withdrawing all U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan by September. A May poll from Quinnipiac found 62% approving of Biden's withdrawal plans, with just 29% opposed. 

"The American people's continued support for withdrawal, including a number of veterans groups, appears to have had much more of an impact than the worsening security situation inside of Afghanistan," said the Atlantic Council's Christopher Preble. "Most Americans recognized some time ago that the war there was not advancing core U.S. security interests."

For now, "the withdrawal is over 90% complete," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Politico. The elements that remain on the ground, according to news reports, are about 650 troops defending the U.S. embassy in Kabul and Hamid Karzai International Airport, and about 250 contractors working with the Afghan air force.

It's worth noting that experts expect that a covert U.S. presence will remain even after other military assets depart. "I seriously doubt that we will end CIA covert operations in Afghanistan or elsewhere," said C. Christine Fair, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

However, the officially acknowledged elements of the United States' military drawdown have continued, with an end in sight by September. We continue to rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

Joe Biden, remarks on the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, July 8, 2021

Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, "Mapping Taliban Contested and Controlled Districts in Afghanistan," accessed July 12, 2021

New York Times, "Top U.S. General Steps Down in Afghanistan," July 12, 2021

Associated Press, "US left Afghan airfield at night, didn't tell new commander," July 6, 2021

Politico, "Sources: U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan complete 'for all intents and purposes,'" July 7, 2021

NPR, "U.S. Unconditional Withdrawal Rattles Afghanistan's Shaky Peace Talks," April 29, 2021

Forbes, "The War In Afghanistan: A Polling Post-Mortem," July 8, 2021

Email interview with Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, July 12, 2021

Email interview with C. Christine Fair, professor of security studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, July 12, 2021

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg April 14, 2021

Joe Biden announces total Afghanistan withdrawal by Sept. 11, 2021

President Joe Biden moved closer to keeping his campaign promise to get American troops out of Afghanistan. 

Speaking from the same room where, in 2001, then-President George W. Bush announced the first strikes on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Biden said all forces would leave the country by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

"We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago," Biden said April 14. "That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021."

Biden took office facing a May 1 withdrawal deadline agreed to by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. Biden said he would honor that, although he redefined the terms. The original agreement said the U.S. and its allies "will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan" by that date.

Biden said the final withdrawals — of both American and NATO forces — would begin on May 1.

His move drew approval from those who have long argued the U.S. should leave.

"The war in Afghanistan has not been vital to U.S. security and prosperity for over a decade, and should have ended long ago," said the Atlantic Council's Christopher Preble April 14. "Biden has the opportunity to do what three of his successors failed to accomplish, and setting out a 9/11/21 marker should help."

American forces in Afghanistan currently number about 3,000. NATO allies also have military missions in the country. Biden said the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan government. In March, John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House committee that $8 billion remained to be spent.

Sopko painted a bleak picture of conditions in the country. Talks with the Taliban remain tenuous, and the group has continued to attack government forces.

"Security remains the most crucial and enduring high-risk area for Afghanistan, because the Taliban have not significantly changed their high levels of violence, or military and political objectives," Sopko said March 16.

Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, criticized Biden's plan. McConnell called it a "grave mistake," saying there was still work for the U.S. to do in Afghanistan. 

Foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon at Brookings, a Washington policy center, also said the decision does little good.

"It deprives us of leverage, reduces the odds of a negotiated settlement, heightens the risk of war — and, in my estimation, also of ethnic cleansing, state collapse, and perhaps the effective partitioning of the country," O'Hanlon said April 14. "All to bring 3,000 or 4,000 troops home. I think it's a poor strategy."

Biden rebutted those critiques, saying waiting for the right conditions has consistently led America down the wrong path.

"When will it be the right moment to leave?" Biden asked. "One more year? Two more years, 10 more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more on top of the trillion we've already spent? Not now? That's how we got here."

He argued that the original goal to prevent Afghanistan from serving as a launchpad for terrorist attacks on the U.S. had been accomplished. America, he said, needed to focus on the challenges of the next 20 years, not the past 20.

For now, the American troop posture remains in place, so we continue with our rating of In the Works.

 

Our Sources

White House, President Biden delivers remarks on the way forward in Afghanistan, April 14, 2021

U.S. State Department, Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, Feb. 29, 2020

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Statement of John F. Sopko, March 16, 2021

Mitch McConnell, Statement on Afghanistan, April 13, 2021

Washington Post, Biden will withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, July 13, 2021

Email exchange, Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy, Brookings Institution, April 14, 2021

Email exchange, Christopher Preble, co-director, New American Engagement Initiative, Atlantic Council, April 14, 2021

 
Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 26, 2021

Joe Biden moves to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan

Candidate Joe Biden promised to "bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan" and "end the forever wars."

In his first press conference as president, Biden said the United States would not make a May 1 deadline for the departure of all American troops agreed to by President Donald Trump, but he said downsizing remains the goal.

"We've been meeting with our allies, those other nations that have NATO Allies who have troops in Afghanistan as well," Biden said March 25. "And if we leave, we're going to do so in a safe and orderly way."

Biden noted that there's a United Nations-led process underway on how to end the war. Asked if it was possible that U.S. troops might be there next year, Biden said, "I can't picture that being the case."

A total withdrawal of all troops would go beyond what Biden promised. He only committed to bringing home "the vast majority of our troops."

In 2017, the Pentagon stopped regular reporting on troop levels, but in January 2021 the department announced that 2,500 troops remained.

That's a far cry from the 100,000 at the peak under President Barack Obama, Brookings Institution defense fellow Michael O'Hanlon noted. 

O'Hanlon said the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban is at a precarious point, and Biden's caution reflects that.

"Why would he want to tell the Taliban we're leaving just as he is trying to get leverage over them at peace talks?" O'Hanlon said.

The departure of all U.S. troops, he said, would "condemn the country to a worsening civil war and eventual Taliban takeover in part of the country at least."

That is not a universal view.

For Christopher Preble at the Atlantic Council, Biden's words raise a red flag.

"The continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan does not move the country any closer to a durable political settlement that will end the civil war," Preble said. "Only the parties to that conflict can bring that war to a close."

For the moment, talks continue on reducing the American footprint in Afghanistan.

We rate this promise In the Works.

 

Our Sources

White House, Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference, March 25, 2021

U.S. State Department, Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, Feb. 29, 2020

Congressional Research Service, Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2020, Feb. 22, 2021

U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Completes Troop-Level Drawdown in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jan. 15, 2021

Foreign Policy, Biden Has No Good Options in Afghanistan, Feb. 25, 2021

New York Times, Stay or Go? Biden, Long a Critic of Afghan Deployments, Faces a Deadline, Feb. 16, 2021

Washington Post, U.S. proposes interim power-sharing government with Taliban in Afghanistan, March 8, 2021

Email exchange, Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy, Brookings Institution, March 26, 2021

Email exchange, Christopher Preble, co-director, New American Engagement Initiative, Atlantic Council, March 26, 2021

 

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