US troops to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, White House says
This story has been updated.
KABUL, Afghanistan – The Biden administration has decided that all U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack that started America’s longest war, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
The announcement, which will be made officially on Wednesday, means the U.S. will leave thousands of troops in the country beyond a May 1 deadline for withdrawal that former President Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban last year.
The withdrawal of at least 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will begin before May 1 and may end prior to September, the senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
The withdrawal will not be affected by the progress of the troubled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the official said.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach for the last two decades, is a recipe to stay in Afghanistan forever,” the official said. “So he has reached the conclusion that the United States will complete its drawdown, will remove its forces, before Sept. 11.”
The decision, first reported by The Washington Post, came after a three-month review by the Biden administration of its options.
The review determined that the U.S. can prevent terrorist attacks and protect its homeland without having troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the official said.
Addressing the threats of competition with China, the coronavirus pandemic and decentralized terrorist threats across countries "requires us to close the book on a 20-year conflict in Afghanistan,” the official said.
The administration is not considering leaving a counterterrorism force in the country, an idea that President Joe Biden promoted during last year’s election campaign.
The only remaining military presence in Afghanistan will be the troops required to protect U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Kabul.
The U.S. will help the roughly 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan pull out of the country under a principle of “in together, out together,” the official said.
U.S. and Taliban troops haven’t officially clashed since last year’s peace deal. But violence may resume during the drawdown.
The Taliban haven’t commented yet on Biden’s decision to keep troops in the country, but they’ve said previously that an extension of the U.S. presence after the May deadline would provoke a response, without elaborating further.
“We have communicated to the Taliban in no uncertain terms, that if they do conduct attacks against U.S. or allied forces as we carry out this drawdown … that we will hit back hard and we will hold them accountable for that,” the official said.
On Capitol Hill, some Democrats expressed concerns with the new withdrawal deadline, while top Republicans slammed the announcement.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the move a “a reckless and dangerous decision” and urged the administration to reconsider.
“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,” Inhofe said.
Withdrawal should be conditional, Republican committee member Sen. Joni Ernst said.
“I think a random withdrawal just because you're celebrating an anniversary is not the right decision,” the Iowa lawmaker said.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he wants to hear more on the administration’s justification for the move.
“I just am concerned that after so much blood and national treasure that we don’t lose what we were seeking to achieve,” Menendez said.
Others lauded the decision to end a war that has taken the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. service members.
“Year after year, military leaders told Congress and the American people that we were finally turning the corner in Afghanistan, but ultimately we were only turning in a vicious circle," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a statement.
Stars and Stripes reporter Sarah Cammarata contributed to this report.