U.S. President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, a move that would mark the end to the United States’ longest war 20 years after the terrorist attacks that sparked it.
The decision, confirmed by senior Biden administration officials on Tuesday, comes after months of deadlocked peace talks with the Afghan government and the Taliban. It extends a withdrawal deadline first negotiated under former U.S. President Donald Trump to pull all U.S. troops by May 1.
The withdrawal deadline date is set in stone, according to a senior Biden administration official speaking on condition of anonymity, and is not subject to any further alterations based on conditions on the ground.
“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,” the official said.
“President Biden will give our military commanders the time and space they need to conduct a safe and orderly withdrawal, not just of U.S. forces but of allied forces as well on the principle of ‘in together, out together,’” the official added. “We will take the time we need to execute that—and no more time than that.”
The announcement of an endgame for Afghanistan comes as the country struggles to chart its post-war future. A conference in Istanbul meant to help shape Afghanistan’s peace process—and due to kick off this week—is now delayed after the Taliban boycotted the summit. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians have increased over the past year, the insurgents refuse to recognize the government in Kabul, and few parties are pleased with the Biden administration’s proposal of an interim government, which could usher the Taliban back into power.
The senior Biden administration official said Washington warned the Taliban against targeting U.S. or allied troops as the drawdown is carried out. “We have communicated to the Taliban, in no uncertain terms, that if they do conduct attacks against U.S. or allied forces as we carry out this drawdown … we will hit back hard and that we will hold them accountable for that,” the official said.
A senior Afghan diplomat, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to inform him of the decision on Tuesday, with a follow-up call from Biden expected tomorrow.
The war in Afghanistan, which has led to the deaths of more than 2,300 U.S. service members and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians over the course of 20 years, became a defining feature of U.S. foreign policy and a costly legacy of the “war on terror” that began under George W. Bush’s administration following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Successive administrations, responding to the public’s exhaustion with the so-called “forever war,” have failed to keep their campaign promises of withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades of conflict and tens of billions of dollars in military spending and nation-building projects.
But the Biden administration had long signaled it was ready to pull the plug, despite trepidation from military officials and some in the Afghan government who fear it could lead to a Taliban takeover of the country and the squashing of Afghanistan’s fragile democratic institutions, economic development, and human rights.
Some U.S. lawmakers were quick to cheer the president’s decision as long overdue while others warned that such a move could pave the way for a resurgence of terrorist groups akin to the rise of the Islamic State following the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
“The Biden administrations’ plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is repeating the mistakes of President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011,” said Republican Rep. Mike Waltz, a former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan before running for Congress, in a statement. “The intelligence community has made it clear that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations will grow in the coming vacuum and still intend to attack the United States and our allies.”
The Biden administration believes even without a substantial troop presence, it can keep any terrorist threat at bay.
“We believe that we retain substantial military and intelligence capabilities to disrupt the broader capacity of al-Qaeda to successfully reconstitute a sustained homeland threat to the United States, and we will exercise those capabilities,” the senior administration official said.