Biden Throws Down The Gauntlet On Pulling Troops Out Of Afghanistan Ahead Of 9/11 Anniversary

The White House says the bulk of American troops in Afghanistan will leave in the coming months regardless of conditions on the ground.

A member of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division looks out of the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan.
US Army

In a major foreign policy development, the U.S. government has confirmed its intention to pull out virtually all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan no later than September 11th of this year, which will be the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The withdrawal, which President Joe Biden's administration plans to begin carrying out this month and says it will complete regardless of any conditions on the ground, would mark the effective end of a nearly two-decades-long American military intervention in that country. At the same time, it raises significant questions about Afghanistan's future, given that the Taliban remain a very real threat to the central government, whose security forces heavily dependent on foreign support.

The Washington Post was the first to break the news, which other outlets subsequently reported on. A conference call was subsequently held where a senior U.S. official confirmed the withdrawal plan and offered additional details. 

US Army

A US Army soldier kneels on the rear ramp of a CH-47 Chinook flying over Afghanistan.

“This is not conditions-based," that official said, adding that Sept. 11, 2021, was a "no later than" date for the withdrawal to be completed. "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."

"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, referring to foreign troops in Afghanistan, which would appear to include those operating under the auspices of the NATO-led Resolute Support security assistance mission. "We will take the time we need to execute that – and no more time than that."

It's unclear how aware Afghan or NATO officials were of the withdrawal plan prior to today. "Administration officials were in the process of notifying officials in NATO nations as well as Afghan officials and the Taliban on Tuesday," according to The Washington Post.

The current U.S. intervention in Afghanistan began when Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel moved into Afghanistan just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The first U.S. special operations forces followed in October 2001. The ostensible mission, as outlined in the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a resolution that Congress passed on Sept. 18, 2001, was to "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or  persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

CIA

A picture showing CIA personnel inside a Russian-made Mi-8/Mi-17-type helicopter headed for Afghanistan in September 2001.

While the U.S. government's primary stated reason for remaining in Afghanistan has remained a desire to prevent the country from again becoming a base for terrorist attacks on the United States could be planned, the actual mission evolved into one of state-building to support those objectives. Nearly 9,600 foreign troops, including U.S. forces, are in Afghanistan today under the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

A joint raid conducted by elements of the U.S. military and the CIA had already led to the death of Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. "We went to Afghanistan to deliver justice to those who attacked us on Sept. 11...We believe we achieved that objective some years ago," a U.S. official had told The Washington Post.

President Biden reportedly arrived at the decision to set this firm withdrawal date after considering various courses of action and with an eye toward other threats to U.S. national interests abroad. "This is not 2001," the senior U.S. official said. "It is 2021, and in 2021, the terrorist threat that we face is real and it emanates from a number of countries, indeed a number of continents, from Yemen, from Syria, from Somalia, from other parts of Africa." 

The withdrawal also comes amid a continuing push, which began in earnest under President Donald Trump, to reorient the U.S. military more toward preparing for "great power competition" with potential near-peer adversaries, such as China or Russia. The Biden administration has continued to point to China as the "pacing threat" for future U.S. military planning.

With regards to Afghanistan, it remains unclear exactly what forces the U.S. government now plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in the coming months. The senior U.S. official said that, except for military forces assigned to protect the embassy, everyone else would be on their way out.

At present, the U.S. military official says it has around 2,500 troops in the country, but the actual number is reportedly closer to 3,500. It's unclear how much overlap there is between either of those figures and unacknowledged special operations forces and CIA paramilitary personnel who are also widely understood to be operating in the country. 

OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

US special operations forces at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in December 2019, after the arrival of then-President Donald Trump on Air Force One, seen in the background.

The White House has also said the U.S. military will "reposition our counterterrorism capabilities "keeping significant assets" at unspecified locations "in the region to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat to the homeland from Afghanistan, and to hold the Taliban to its commitment to ensure al Qaeda does not once again threaten the United States or our interests or our allies."

It's also not clear how these withdrawal plans will impact other U.S. security forces elements in Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, commonly referred to by the acronym INL, has a robust presence in the country, including a helicopter shuttle service that runs between the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and the U.S. Embassy there, which you can read about in more detail here. Agencies under the U.S. Department of Justice, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), have also conducted field operations in Afghanistan in the past.

US State Department

US State Department CH-46 helicopters sit on the tarmac at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in front of a US Air Force C-32A passenger transport aircraft ahead of the departure of then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 25, 2019. 

"Biden administration officials say the United States intends to remain closely involved in the peace process and will continue to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to the Afghan government and security forces, which remains almost totally dependent on foreign support," The Washington Post had reported. That latter point is especially important given how heavily the U.S. government subsidizes the Afghan military and other state security forces, including through contractors who are largely responsible for maintaining higher-end systems, especially aircraft, such as the Afghan Air Force's A-29 Super Tucano light attack planes and its UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

It also remains to be seen how the Taliban, the largest and most powerful militant group in Afghanistan opposed to the central government in Kabul, responds to the Biden administration announcement. The Taliban had threatened to resume attacks on foreign forces if Biden did not withdraw U.S. troops by May 1, a date set in an agreement between the group and the previous Trump Administration.

In addition, while the Taliban has largely kept to its moratorium on attacking U.S. and other foreign troops, it has continued to aggressively engage Afghanistan's national security forces and other government officials. This has included targeted assassinations, some of which have involved small drones carrying improvised munitions.

At the same time, the aforementioned peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government in Kabul that began under the Trump Administration have been stuttering along without any significant progress for months. "We discussed the ongoing peace process, the upcoming peace talks in Turkey, and also spoke about the upcoming phone call with President @JoeBiden," Ghani had Tweeted out earlier today, referring to a call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Various other militant and terrorist groups, including a faction aligned with ISIS, are also active in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has even acknowledged indirect coordination with the Taliban in fighting against this ISIS branch, which is known as ISIS-K.

Regardless of what U.S. forces may actually remain in Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the region, after the planned withdrawals, there are already concerns about what this plan could mean for the country's central government. "We’ll 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," the senior U.S. government official said. "We will also look to work with other countries using diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian tools to protect the gains made by Afghan women."

Whether the U.S. government will remain prepared to prevent the collapse of the government in Kabul should the Taliban attempt to forcefully overthrow it is unclear. "We will encourage any future government in Afghanistan to expand resources for refugees and internally displaced peoples while also working with Congress to expand and expedite Special Immigrant Visas for those Afghans and their families who supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan," the senior U.S. official added, underscoring how the country is already often too dangerous a place to remain for Afghans who worked with U.S. or NATO-led coalition forces.

US Army

Afghan Army troops.

The Biden Administration has already faced a flurry of criticism from Republican members of Congress over the plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the withdrawal plan was a "grave mistake," while Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and the ranking member of his party on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was a "reckless and dangerous decision."

At the same time, not all Republicans were categorically opposed to the idea. "If we're ready to go, I'll be supportive," Utah Senator Mitt Romney said. "If we're not ready to go, I'll be making that very clear." Senator Ted Cruz, a prominent critic of Biden, voiced general support for the idea of troops "coming home." 

With President Biden's first budget proposal, for the 2022 Fiscal Year, set to come sometime between May and June, there is the potential for opponents of the pullout to try to block funding for the plan directly or indirectly, or simply threaten to prompt a government shutdown if the withdrawal proceeds. 

Whatever happens now, Biden and his administration have taken a significant policy position aimed at largely bringing U.S. involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan to an end after nearly 20 years. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com