“It will be difficult to meet the deadline of May 1,” he said. “Just for tactical reasons, it’s hard to get these troops out.” Narratively, he added, “And if we travel, we will do so in a safe and orderly manner.”
James Stavidis, a retired naval admiral who served as NATO commander-in-chief from 2009 to 2013, says that at this point it would be unwise to get out quickly.
“Sometimes it’s not a decision to make a decision, which seems to be the case before the May 1 deadline,” Stavidis said in an email exchange on Wednesday. “The most cautious approach feels like an extension of six months and an attempt to get the Taliban to live up to their promises – essentially allowing a legitimate ‘conditional’ withdrawal in the autumn.”
There are cross-currents of pressure on Biden. On the one hand, he has argued for years, including during his time as vice president, when President Barack Obama ordered a huge build-up of U.S. forces, that Afghanistan be better handled as a smaller counter-terrorism mission. Facing Russia and China has since emerged as a higher priority.
On the other hand, current and former military officers have argued that if one now leaves with the Taliban in a position of relative strength and the Afghan government in a fragile state, one risks losing what has been achieved in 20 years of struggle.
“A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be of interest to any of the key players, including the Taliban, ”concluded a group of bipartisan experts known as the Afghan study group in a February report. The group, whose co-chair, retired General Joseph Dunford, is a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommended Biden extend the deadline beyond May, preferably with some sort of agreement from the Taliban.
If the troops stay, Afghanistan will be Biden’s war. His decisions, now and in the coming months, could determine the legacy of a 2001 U.S. invasion designed in response to al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, in which the extremist group led by Osama bin Laden used Afghanistan as a refuge. .
During the 2020 campaign, Biden said that if elected, he could retain a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan, but would also “end the war responsibly” to ensure that US forces never have to return. The peace talks, which began last autumn between the Taliban and the Afghan government, are seen as the best hope, but so far they have produced little.
Postponement of the US withdrawal poses a risk that the Taliban will resume attacks on US and coalition forces and possibly escalate the war. In an agreement in February 2020 with the administration of President Donald Trump, the Taliban agreed to halt such attacks and hold peace talks with the Afghan government in exchange for a US commitment to a complete withdrawal by May 2021.
When he entered the White House in January, Biden knew of the impending deadline and had time to meet it if he had chosen to do so. It became only a steep logistical obstacle because he postponed a decision in favor of lengthy consultation within his administration and with allies. Flying thousands of troops and their equipment out of Afghanistan for the next three weeks under the potential threat of Taliban resistance is not technically impossible, though it would be futile to violate Biden’s promise not to rush.
Biden reviewed the February 2020 agreement shortly after joining, and as recently as Tuesday, aides said he was still considering a way forward in Afghanistan. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed that May 1 was a deadline set by the previous administration and that a decision was complicated.
“But it is also an important decision – one he must take in close consultation with our allies and also with our national security team here in this administration,” Psaki said. “And we will give him time for that.”
During briefings on Afghanistan, Biden would have heard from military leaders such as General Frank McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, who have publicly and repeatedly said that the Taliban have not lived up to the commitments they made in the February 2020 agreement. McKenzie and others have said that levels of violence are too high for a lasting political solution.
Congress has been cautious about reducing the US military presence in Afghanistan. Last year, it explicitly banned the Pentagon from using funds to reduce under 4,000 troops, but the Pentagon continued anyway after Trump ordered a reduction to 2,500 after he lost the election. Trump got around the legal ban by signing a waiver.