WASHINGTON: All US troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept 11 and the withdrawal will start before May 1, a deadline set in the US-Taliban agreement signed last year, a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday.
“We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1 and plan to have all US troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” the official said. The US still has some 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
At a hurriedly called virtual conference, the official also said that US President Joe Biden would formally announce the pullout schedule on Wednesday (today).
The proposed schedule is seen as a “mid-way” between meeting the May 1 deadline, set in the agreement US and Taliban negotiators finalised in Doha last February, and completely ignoring it.
President Biden had said soon after entering the White House that it would be difficult to pull all the troops out by May 1, as required in the agreement. Policymakers in Washington hope that the decision to begin the withdrawal before May 1 would be seen by the Taliban as indicating the Biden administration’s determination to respect the agreement signed by their predecessors.
The official who briefed the media said the president had concluded that “the best path forward to advance American interests is to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years” and address “the global threat picture as it exists today, not as it was two decades ago”.
He said the objective behind sending troops to Afghanistan was to ensure that the country was not used as a safe haven for launching 9/11-like attacks on the United States and its allies.
“We believe we achieved that objective some years ago. We judged the threat against the homeland now emanating from Afghanistan to be at a level that we can address it, without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban,” the official said.
The US and Nato officials had previously said the Taliban had failed to live up to commitments to reduce violence they made in the February 2020 agreement and that was why the withdrawal was delayed. They also expressed the fear that a total US withdrawal could cause the collapse of the Afghan government in Kabul.
At Tuesday’s briefing, the senior administration official said that the United States would “remain deeply engaged with the government of Afghanistan” and would also remain “committed to the Afghan people who have made extraordinary sacrifices” during this conflict.
“We will stand behind the diplomatic process, and we will use our full toolkit to ensure the future that the Afghan people are seeking has the best chance of coming about,” he said.
The official said the Taliban have also been warned not to attack withdrawing troops. “We have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on US troops, as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal, will be met with a forceful response,” he said.
“At this point we have discussed the drawdown with our Nato allies and operational partners. We will remain in lockstep with them as we undergo this operation.”
Explaining why the Biden administration also concluded that withdrawal was the best option, the official said: “We have long known that military force would not solve Afghanistan’s internal political challenges; would not end Afghanistan’s internal conflict. And so, we are ending our military operations while we focus our efforts on supporting diplomatically.”
The official said the decision followed an extensive review of the US Afghan policy and “what emerged was a clear-eyed assessment of the best path forward”.
The review, he said, concluded that “there is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process”.
Supporting the process required “putting the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government”.
He said the United States realised the importance of the US- and Nato-led peace efforts “but what we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process”.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2021