Last US Troops Will Leave Afghanistan by 20th Anniversary of 9/11, White House Says

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American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan
In this Nov. 30, 2017 file photo, American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

President Joe Biden will announce plans Wednesday to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The Washington Post was the first to report the administration's plans.

In a conference call with reporters, a senior administration official confirmed plans to pull all troops from Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11 -- perhaps even earlier -- and said the withdrawal will begin this month.

Read Next: Biden Predicts Full US Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2022

"President Biden has decided to draw down the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan and finally end the U.S. war there after 20 years," the official said. "We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1 and plan to have all U.S. troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11."

The withdrawal will bring the nation's longest war to a close.

Under a peace agreement the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban, the U.S. was supposed to withdraw its remaining forces -- estimated at between 2,500 and 3,500 troops -- from Afghanistan by May 1. However, the Biden administration has been signaling for some time that it was unlikely to make that deadline.

The Pentagon declined to comment Tuesday.

The official said Biden is "deeply grateful for the honor, courage and determination of U.S. men and women who served in Afghanistan for almost two decades, as well as the sacrifices made not just by those troops, but also by their families."

But now, the official said, the Biden administration believes any threats to the U.S. homeland coming from Afghanistan are at a level that can be addressed without keeping a military footprint in that country, and without continuing America's war with the Taliban.

"We went to Afghanistan to deliver justice to those who attacked us on September 11, and to disrupt terrorists seeking to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to attack the United States," the official said. "We believe we achieved that objective some years ago."

NATO allies and partners will draw down their troops in the same time frame, he said, while consulting with the U.S.

"We will remain in lockstep with them as we undergo this operation," he said. "We went in together, adjusted together, and now we will prepare to leave together. We're deeply grateful for the sacrifices so many of them made along the way, and we'll never forget the ultimate show of allied support when NATO invoked Article 5 on Sept. 12, 2001, after our country was attacked."

When invoked, Article 5 of the NATO charter treats an attack on one NATO member as an attack on all.

The official said the plan to draw all troops down over the next five months is a firm commitment that will not be based on conditions on the ground, as past withdrawal goals have been.

"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," he said.

Depending on how operational and logistical issues go, he added, the withdrawal could be finished well before the Sept. 11 deadline.

The only troops remaining in Afghanistan will be the force needed to protect the U.S. diplomatic presence there, the official said. The U.S. government is working to determine what force will be needed to protect its embassy in Kabul, and is consulting with the Afghan government during that process.

As the United States wraps up military operations, the official said, it will turn its attention to helping solve Afghanistan's internal conflicts diplomatically and to maintaining the gains achieved by Afghan women.

"We have long known that there is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan," he said. "We will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process, and that means putting the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But what we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process."

The official said the U.S. will encourage "any future government in Afghanistan" to offer more help to refugees and other people displaced within Afghanistan.

And the administration will work with Congress to expand and speed up the process for issuing Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans and their families who supported America in Afghanistan, such as by serving as interpreters. This troubled visa program has long been plagued by bureaucratic delays and short-staffing, meaning it sometimes takes years for endangered Afghans to work their way through the byzantine process.

The U.S. has made it clear to the Taliban "in no uncertain terms" that if it attacks American troops during the withdrawal process, "we will hit back hard," the official said, adding that the U.S. will continue watching for terrorist threats or signs of al-Qaida's resurgence in years to come.

The U.S. will reposition counterterrorism capabilities in the region and keep "significant assets" there "to ensure al-Qaida does not once again threaten the United States or our interests, or our allies," he said.

After taking office, the official said, Biden requested a review of "genuine, realistic options" in Afghanistan that would advance and protect U.S. interests. The president consulted with Cabinet officials, lawmakers, the Afghan government, NATO allies and partners still serving in Afghanistan, along with other nations donating to Afghanistan; regional powers; and others.

Lawmakers' reactions to the administration's plans were mixed.

"It is far more difficult to end a war than to start one," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine officer who deployed to Iraq and now sits on the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement. "Almost 20 years on, it is clear we won't win the war in Afghanistan, but there are still devastating ways we could lose."

He added that the United States needs to consider several factors for a withdrawal as September draws closer, including maintaining a presence in the area to counter terrorist threats.

It also needs to support the Afghan government to maintain the rights Afghan people have won since the Taliban was pushed from power after the 9/11 attacks, Moulton said. And it needs to make sure the future situation in Afghanistan doesn't contribute to instability in the region, particularly with Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons and Iran seeking greater influence.

"If we have learned anything in the last 20 years it is that there is nothing worse for America's service members than leaving positions and returning the next year with more troops to fight and die for the same goals we failed to achieve the last time we were there," Moulton said. "I want to bring home our troops, but we must bring them home for good."

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that the reported withdrawal plans would be "insane" and an irresponsible "disaster in the making."

"A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous," he said. "President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11."

Graham said a residual counterterrorism force there would be necessary to prevent a potential future terrorist attack against the U.S. or its allies.

He added that a full withdrawal would be dire and likely would result in civil war and the reversal of gains made by Afghan women and children.

"The void created by this fight benefits ISIS and al-Qaida, who still reside in Afghanistan," Graham said. "I know people are frustrated, but wars don't end because you're frustrated. Wars end when the threat is eliminated.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted Biden’s plan for withdrawal as “reckless and dangerous” and urged him to change course.

Inhofe said timing the withdrawal to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 shows Biden’s decision was “political” and not based on conditions in Afghanistan.

“No one wants a forever war, but I’ve consistently said any withdrawal must be conditions-based,” Inhofe said. “Arbitrary deadlines would likely put our troops in danger, jeopardize all the progress we’ve made, and lead to civil war in Afghanistan, and create a breeding ground for international terrorists.”

But veterans groups were more supportive of the decision.

"Words cannot adequately express how huge this is for troops and military families, who have weathered deployment after deployment, with no end in sight, for the better part of two decades," Jon Soltz, chairman of the progressive veterans group VoteVets, said in a statement.

"America has more pressing priorities at home and elsewhere, and President Biden must keep his promise to end our endless war in Afghanistan," Dan Caldwell, senior adviser for Concerned Veterans of America, said in a release.

In a press conference last month, Biden suggested he would likely end the war in Afghanistan by next year.

"I can't picture that being the case," Biden told reporters March 25 when asked whether U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan in 2022. "We will leave; the question is when we leave."

During the same press conference, Biden indicated that the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline would not be met "for tactical reasons."

"We've been meeting with our allies, other nations who have troops in Afghanistan as well," he said. "If we leave, we're doing so in a safe and orderly way."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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