President Joe Biden will end America’s thousands-strong military presence in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, administration officials told The Washington Post and Reuters on Tuesday ― blowing past a May 1 deadline for withdrawal that U.S. officials set last year, but establishing a new end date for the country’s longest foreign war.
The president is expected on Wednesday to announce his plan to end the intervention by the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, after which the U.S. become deeply entangled in conflicts throughout Muslim-majority parts of the world.
The change to the timetable is not unexpected. One Western official told HuffPost at the end of March that U.S. allies were almost certain a May 1 withdrawal was not in the cards. At a March 25 press conference, Biden said meeting the deadline would “be hard” ― though he added that he did not believe there would be American troops in Afghanistan next year.
But his commitment to a new deadline is striking. Most national security commentators expected that if Biden delayed the withdrawal, he would follow past administrations in tying the American deployment to conditions in Afghanistan like the strength of anti-U.S. forces, rather than making a firm pledge to leave whatever the situation.
There are currently about 3,500 American troops in the country.
Biden reached his final decision after months of review, according to The Washington Post, ultimately concluding that Washington needed to set a clear timeline for withdrawal to avoid fresh fighting with the Taliban ― the Afghan militants who have largely paused attacks on Americans since the U.S. agreed to a May 1 pull-out last year.
Influential pro-withdrawal legislators and anti-war organizers are now likely to pressure Biden to ensure there is no further delay. War skeptics are also wary of the president’s past suggestions that even without a large troop presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. might continue to fight terror groups there.
“We commend the Biden administration for their reported decision, but... this decision must just be the beginning, not the end, of a total rethinking of the U.S. approach to conflict,” Stephen Miles of the activist group Win Without War said in a statement after the reports emerged. “Combat troops must not simply be replaced with different military tactics: covert operations, private contractors, or drone warfare.”
In a press release, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) called Biden’s choice “an act of extraordinary political courage and vision” and cited the president’s campaign-trail promise to end the war.
The Taliban brutally ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when American forces toppled their regime for their links to al Qaeda. U.S. troops ― and contingents from nations in the NATO alliance and other American partners ― have been in the country since, both directly fighting the Taliban and supporting pro-U.S. Afghans in developing new institutions.
But as years of fighting claimed tens of thousands of lives, and it became increasingly clear that the Taliban would not be defeated militarily, critics of the Afghan intervention gained influence ― and politicians began pledging to pull out of the war. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both ran on ending the U.S. deployment. However, each faced strong opposition from the Defense Department and a coalition of hawkish lawmakers and analysts, who challenged efforts to bring home the troops by arguing that a withdrawal would spur increased violence and create new opportunities for terror groups.
Last year, Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban that established the May 1 deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban commitment to stop attacking international forces. Anti-war activists, including many progressives who broadly disliked Trump, welcomed the move as a way to force an end to America’s longest-running foreign intervention.
Biden’s team continued Trump-era diplomacy with the Taliban but was wary about the former president’s plan, because they felt it did not give them enough time to jump-start intra-Afghan negotiations to share power after a U.S. withdrawal.
The president and his aides faced intense lobbying in recent weeks from supporters and skeptics of a withdrawal, ranging from veterans who volunteered to share their trauma to Pentagon officials suggesting that pulling out would guarantee a full-on Taliban takeover.