Biden to Complete Full Afghanistan Withdrawal by Sept. 11

The move will finally end the United States’ longest war.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. soldiers board a helicopter in Korengal Valley.
U.S. soldiers board an Army Chinook transport helicopter after it brought fresh soldiers and supplies to the Korengal Outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on Oct. 27, 2008. John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, a move that would mark the end to the United States’ longest war 20 years after the terrorist attacks that sparked it.

The decision, confirmed by senior Biden administration officials on Tuesday, comes after months of deadlocked peace talks with the Afghan government and the Taliban. It extends a withdrawal deadline first negotiated under former U.S. President Donald Trump to pull all U.S. troops by May 1.

The withdrawal deadline date is set in stone, according to a senior Biden administration official speaking on condition of anonymity, and is not subject to any further alterations based on conditions on the ground.

“This is not conditions-based. 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,” the official said.

The official said all of the roughly 2,500 U.S. service members left in Afghanistan could be withdrawn well before the Sept. 11 deadline, and the pace of withdrawal depends on operational and logistics issues for the commanders on the ground.

“President Biden will give our military commanders the time and space they need to conduct a safe and orderly withdrawal, not just of U.S. forces but of allied forces as well on the principle of ‘in together, out together,’” the official added. “We will take the time we need to execute that—and no more time than that.”

The announcement of an endgame for Afghanistan comes as the country struggles to chart its post-war future. A conference in Istanbul meant to help shape Afghanistan’s peace process—and due to kick off this week—is now delayed after the Taliban boycotted the summit. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians have increased over the past year, the insurgents refuse to recognize the government in Kabul, and few parties are pleased with the Biden administration’s proposal of an interim government, which could usher the Taliban back into power.

The senior Biden administration official said Washington warned the Taliban against targeting U.S. or allied troops as the drawdown is carried out. “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 … we will hit back hard and that we will hold them accountable for that,” the official said.

In recent days, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to more than two dozen members of Congress and counterparts from NATO as well as other European allies involved in the coalition in Afghanistan to brief them on the administration’s plans, according to a senior State Department official.

A senior Afghan diplomat, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said Blinken called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to inform him of the decision on Tuesday, with a follow-up call from Biden expected tomorrow. But reactions from Afghan officials have remained muted, the senior diplomat said, as they wait on the Biden administration to provide them with an official withdrawal timeline.

The decision comes before any final or verified cease-fire with the Taliban. Top Biden administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, concede the militant group has continued carrying out attacks on Afghan government forces and civilians. Sources close to Afghanistan’s parliament are concerned the Taliban could see an opportunity to take over the country and tip the situation into civil war.

“A hasty unconditional withdrawal takes away the Afghan government’s leverage to negotiate a fair peace deal in Istanbul,” said Martin Rahmani, executive director of the Afghanistan-U.S. Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council, a group that works closely with Afghan parliamentarians. “It also risks destabilizing the country and the region, increasing the likelihood of a civil war and the resurgence of terrorist groups that threaten local, regional, and global security.”

The war in Afghanistan, which has led to the deaths of more than 2,300 U.S. service members and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians over the course of 20 years, became a defining feature of U.S. foreign policy and a costly legacy of the “war on terror” that began under George W. Bush’s administration following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Successive administrations, responding to the public’s exhaustion with the so-called “forever war,” have failed to keep their campaign promises of withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades of conflict and tens of billions of dollars in military spending and nation-building projects.

But the Biden administration had long signaled it was ready to pull the plug, despite trepidation from military officials and some in the Afghan government who fear it could lead to a Taliban takeover of the country and the squashing of Afghanistan’s fragile democratic institutions, economic development, and human rights.

Some U.S. lawmakers said the withdrawal was long past due. “I’ve been hearing from a lot of constituents today. A lot of them are just feeling like it’s time,” said Democratic Rep. Andy Kim, who served as a U.S. diplomat stationed in Afghanistan and was a National Security Council staffer before running for Congress. “We went there to exact justice for the attacks against the American people and to decimate al Qaeda, which we’ve accomplished. We need to find a way now to bring the longest war in American history to a close.”

Others warned that such a move could pave the way for a resurgence of terrorist groups akin to the rise of the Islamic State following the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

“The Biden administrations’ plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is repeating the mistakes of President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011,” said Republican Rep. Mike Waltz, a former Green Beret who previously served in Afghanistan, in a statement. “The intelligence community has made it clear that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations will grow in the coming vacuum and still intend to attack the United States and our allies.”

The Biden administration believes even without a troop presence, it can keep any terrorist threat at bay.

“We believe that we retain substantial military and intelligence capabilities to disrupt the broader capacity of al-Qaeda to successfully reconstitute a sustained homeland threat to the United States, and we will exercise those capabilities,” the senior administration official said.

Even the U.S. intelligence community appears to be bracing for the worst in Afghanistan, assessing that the prospects for a peace deal with the Taliban remain “low” over the next year in an annual threat assessment also released on Tuesday. “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” the assessment said. “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

Other skeptics worry the withdrawal could erase all of the progress Afghanistan has made in the past two decades, even as it came at a painful and pricey cost to the United States.

“While it is understandable to want all our forces to come home, it should not be at the expense of losing what we have gained to do so,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration and now an ABC News analyst. “Repositioning our counterterrorism capabilities outside of the country will significantly reduce our intelligence collection operations and our ability to conduct unilateral operations against direct threats to the homeland.”

Update, April 13, 2021: This article was updated to provide more information about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch