Stay or go by May 1? US risks disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan if it doesn’t decide soon

A Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle is loaded on a flatbed trailer as part of a retrograde cargo operation on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in July 2020. U.S. troops must either begin a withdrawal soon to meet a May 1 deadline, or must extend their timeline to avoid a disorderly exit, U.S. defense officials and analysts said.


By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 23, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan — Time is running out for Washington to choose whether to keep to a deal with the Taliban and pull out of Afghanistan by May 1, a defense official and several security analysts said.

The deadline to leave Afghanistan set out in a U.S.-Taliban agreement last year means U.S. troops must begin their withdrawal by the beginning of April, or risk a chaotic and dangerous exit from America’s longest war, said Jonathan Schroden, special operations program director at the Center for Naval Analyses.

It will take at least three to six weeks to turn over or close the dozen or so bases in the country, pack and ship tons of equipment, and transport tens of thousands of troops and contractors, Schroden said. A rushed withdrawal, or retrograde, may resemble an evacuation, evoking images of U.S. helicopters hastily escaping Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

“If we haven’t already passed the line for responsibly closing the bases the U.S. is on, we’re probably going to pass it in the next week or so,” Schroden said Monday. “If we are still aiming for May 1, we’re either past or very near the point where it will no longer be a methodical, orderly, by-the-book retrograde.”

The deadline is the result of a deal signed in February 2020, which traded a complete troop withdrawal for concessions from the Taliban. These included a Taliban pledge to enter peace negotiations with the Kabul government and to prevent al-Qaida and other terrorist groups from using Afghan territory as a safe haven.

President Joe Biden’s administration is now reviewing whether the Taliban have held up their end of the bargain. The Taliban has threatened to respond with force if the U.S. remains in the country.

A decision on whether to leave may be coming soon, close observers of the peace process have said. Biden may keep the Taliban deal, or he could follow the suggestion of the congressionally appointed Afghan Study Group to extend or abandon the May 1 deadline.

Leaving by May 1 will be “tough” for the U.S. to achieve, Biden said in an interview last week, adding that it wouldn’t take “a lot longer” if the timeline for withdrawal were extended. NBC News and other outlets reported recently that Biden is considering up to a six-month extension, citing unnamed defense officials.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kabul this week and has said the U.S. will not conduct a “hasty or disorderly withdrawal” that puts allied forces or NATO’s reputation at risk.

The military has several options for a rapid withdrawal by May 1 but only if that decision is made soon, a defense official said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

“The corresponding timeline is rapidly running out for these options,” the official said Monday. “Once we start talking about early April, it’s a different ballgame.”

Some 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops, alongside at least 18,000 contractors, remain in the country. About 7,000 NATO and coalition soldiers, who depend on the U.S. for logistics, may also need to exit.

They would have to leave in the middle of ongoing fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan government. While the Taliban have agreed not to target U.S. troops, the period in which only a few troops are left could be very dangerous, Schroden said, and troops might have to be flown in to secure the last planes leaving.

Moving tons of gear out of the landlocked country may be even more challenging, said Army veteran Adam Cote.

Cote led a company of engineers who demolished bases as part of a large-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. That retrograde, perhaps the largest in modern history, cost the Pentagon about $6 billion.

Weapons, ammunition and sensitive gear must be carefully accounted for, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Heavy equipment such as vehicles and generators may be given to the Afghan military or simply destroyed.

“My guess is that a lot of materiel will be destroyed,” Cote said in an email. “It sounds like an enormous waste – and it is – but when you weigh the options of airlifting or ground transport, I think lots of times it is the most cost-effective and efficient way.”

An extension could allow more time for an organized drawdown, said Ryan Baker, a defense analyst that studies military logistics.

“The complexity of large-scale drawdowns means that speed is expensive,” Baker said. “Extending the drawdown deadline by a few months can make it less costly.”

It makes sense that the Biden administration is taking its time to review its options, said Jason Campbell, a researcher with Rand Corp. in Washington.

“This isn’t a matter of plus or minus a few troops, this is the final pullout,” said Campbell, country director for Afghanistan at the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2016 to 2018. “If we’re moving forward with this, we need to make dang sure we’re looking at every angle … it deserves a full review.”

Twitter: @jplawrence3

Contractors load an excavator during a retrograde cargo operation on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in July 2020. U.S. troops must either begin a withdrawal soon to meet a May 1 deadline, or must extend their timeline to avoid a disorderly exit, U.S. defense officials and analysts said.