Biden gave the order but you can give Trump credit for the decision, as the current president’s hand was forced by the May 1, 2021 deadline for withdrawal negotiated by his predecessor with the Taliban last year. Once we hit that deadline 18 days from now, the ceasefire between the two sides is over. “If we break the May 1st deadline negotiated by the previous administration with no clear plan to exit, we will be back at war with the Taliban,” said one source starkly to WaPo today. Biden’s way of averting that is to throw them a bone by promising tomorrow, before the world, that we’ll be gone by September 11.
Which amounts to a bargain: “Don’t shoot at our guys for four more months and we’ll give you what you’ve been waiting 20 years for, an opportunity to overthrow the government and reconquer Afghanistan unimpeded by the U.S. military.” We’ll see if the Taliban accepts.
It should be emphasized that this withdrawal does not depend on conditions on the ground in September. Even if the Taliban’s running wild this summer, which it now has an incentive to do, we’re gone. “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach that has been the approach of the last two decades is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” a senior administration official told the WSJ. And who can disagree?
If not now, when?
Read this entire excerpt from the Post:
While the inter-Afghan talks began in September, they have made little progress. At the same time, the Taliban has increased its attacks on Afghan troops and expanded its territorial control. As the new administration launched its review, the Pentagon and the United Nations reported that the militants had not complied with their commitments under the Trump agreement.
Many Afghan experts have concluded that the Taliban are moving closer to a military victory, but that they may be reluctant to take over as a pariah government, which could result in a loss of international support and aid for the country…
John Sopko, the Department of Defense’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned Congress last month that U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement in place would be “a disaster,” and mean government collapse. Others have warned of civil war, as regional warlords have amassed and armed their own forces…
“I wouldn’t say enough is enough,” said [Colin] Powell, who was in charge of Bush’s State Department during the 9/11 attacks and the beginning of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “I’d say we’ve done all we can do…What are those troops being told they’re there for? It’s time to bring it to an end.”
A go-nowhere peace process, potential government collapse, Taliban takeover, civil war, perhaps a puppet regime installed to preserve relations with the outside world: That’s the prognosis, yet even military luminaries like Colin Powell can only shrug and say, “What’s the alternative?” We spent 20 years trying to stand up a functioning democracy and capable military. It didn’t work. We lost.
In fact, the last 15 years or so of Afghanistan seemed less like a nation-building exercise with real hope of success than a matter of buying our time in hopes that some opportunity for withdrawal in a less than humiliating fashion might present itself. But it never did, because (a) the Afghan government never seemed capable of durably repelling a Taliban offense on its own, (b) the Taliban never had an incentive to make a peace deal with the U.S. and strictly abide by it since it could always wait us out, and (c) by withdrawing we would inevitably end up in a situation where our troops would be at risk of coming under fire as they departed, a humiliating spectacle that will damage national prestige. (Imagine how much the Taliban will relish attacking American soldiers shortly before 9/11 as they had for the exits.) That’s why doves like Justin Amash aren’t cheered by today’s news but rather the opposite — by stalling until September, they fear Biden may eventually be goaded by the Taliban into sticking around based on conditions on the ground after all.
Republican opinion on Capitol Hill today is *almost* uniformly negative, with Jim Inhofe calling it “reckless and dangerous” to withdraw unconditionally and Liz Cheney sounding ready for another 20 in Afghanistan: “Withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan by September 11 will only embolden the very jihadists who attacked our homeland on that day twenty years ago. By declaring that this withdrawal is not based on conditions on the ground, the Biden Administration is sending a dangerous signal that the United States fundamentally does not understand—or is willfully ignorant of—the terrorist threat.” One maverick-y House GOP member sounded heartened by the news, though. That’s Peter Meijer, a veteran, who succeeded Amash in Congress and was one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. He’s ready to leave:
— Rep. Peter Meijer (@RepMeijer) April 13, 2021
Some administration officials are offering “to be sure” assurances to reporters that U.S. troops will remain in the region and available to perform counterterror operations in Afghanistan as necessary, in case international jihadist groups begin to rebuild their outfits there. But it’s mostly face-saving. Literally no one disputes that the same Salafist group that sheltered Al Qaeda prior to 9/11 as it planned and trained for the attacks will gain in power from this decision (“intelligence agencies believe a prospect for a peace deal remains low and the Taliban is likely to make battlefield gains“) and will probably regain control of the country. That’s what defeat looks like. We can blame the Afghan government and say that the culture there is too backward to provide a foundation for civic institutions capable of defeat the Taliban, but it is what it is.
Gotta say, though, I’m a bit surprised that Biden seems poised to take full ownership of this. One thing he could have done to share responsibility for withdrawal with Congress was punt the matter to them by asking them to renew the 2001 AUMF that authorized the original invasion of Afghanistan. “I’m willing to stay and fight,” Biden might say, “but we need Congress to revisit this matter after two decades. If they want our troops there longer, they need to pass a new AUMF.” Congress would probably say no and Biden would be off the hook for ordering the retreat. Why didn’t he do that?