There is a strand that binds President Joe Biden’s September 11 timeframe for the withdrawal of US troops from embattled Afghanistan and the devastation of the World Trade Center exactly 20 years earlier. It was a cataclysmic event that precipitated the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and then the war which toppled the Taliban’s five-year rule.
The militants are ever so up and about and whether the government in Kabul can be left to its own devices to rein them in remains improbable. At any rate, President Biden has signalled the initiative to end the longest war in American history. The schedule comes four months after the May 1 deadline reached in a deal between the administration of President Trump and the Taliban, who still control large swathes of the country amidst the frequent fighting with Afghan government forces.
The agreement had assured that Afghan soil would not be used to undermine the security of the US and its allies in exchange for the troop pullout, while leaving the domestic future of the country, pre-eminently peace, to be largely negotiated by the Taliban and the government. Yet peace has been a scarce commodity in Afghanistan for more than two decades.
Mr Biden had previously said it would be tough to meet the May 1 deadline, but he did not foresee US troops being stationed in Afghanistan till 2022. According to NATO, there are 2,500 US troops in the country but the strength can fluctuate. The Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that there are approximately 1,000 more than that, down from a 2011 high of over 100,000.
Both the US and NATO officially ended combat operations in 2014. President Biden said on Wednesday that “it is time for American troops to come home”, adding that “we cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.”
He noted that he is the fourth US President to contend with the nearly 20year-long war. “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth,” he asserted. The decision comes after a “rigorous policy review” and that the only remaining US forces in the country would be those needed to protect diplomats. The decision has been resented within the echo chambers of US Intelligence.
On the day of Mr Biden’s signal of intent, CIA director William Burns told the US Senate Intelligence Committee that the withdrawal will diminish Washington’s ability to collect data and act on threats. The withdrawal goes against pressure from the Pentagon to keep US forces in the country until Afghan security forces are able to take on the Taliban.
Furthermore, it is a rejection of the so-called “conditions-based” approach that previous administrations had taken, meaning that the US would only withdraw its troops if certain conditions allowed it. Biden’s is not a conditions-based approach.