Biden to announce US pullout from Afghanistan; peace remains elusive

Phil Stewart and Steve Holland, Reuters

Posted at Apr 14 2021 10:08 PM

Afghan officials inspect a damaged minibus after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan March 15, 2021. Mohammad Ismail, Reuters/File Photo

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden's planned announcement on Wednesday of a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 aims to close the book on America's longest war even as critics warn that peace is not assured after two decades of fighting.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, saying foreign troops under NATO command in Afghanistan will leave the country in coordination with the US withdrawal by Sept. 11, after Germany said it would match American plans.

Blinken also spoke by phone with Pakistan's army chief on Wednesday and discussed the peace process, according to a statement from the media wing of Pakistan's military.

Biden plans to announce at the White House that all 2,500 US troops remaining in Afghanistan will be withdrawn no later than Sept. 11, US officials said. By pulling out without a clear victory, the United States opens itself to criticism that a withdrawal represents a de facto admission of failure.

Sept. 11 is a highly symbolic date, coming 20 years to the day of al Qaeda's attacks on the United States that prompted then-President George W. Bush to launch the conflict. The war has cost the lives of 2,400 American service members and consumed an estimated $2 trillion. US troop numbers in Afghanistan peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011.

The Democratic president had faced a May 1 withdrawal deadline, set by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who tried but failed to pull the troops out before he left office. Biden's decision will keep troops in Afghanistan past that deadline, but officials suggested troops could fully depart before Sept. 11.

There is a summit planned about Afghanistan starting on April 24 in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar.

The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led forces, said it would not take part in any meetings that would make decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had left the country. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday called on the United States to adhere to the deal the group reached with Trump's administration.

"If the agreement is committed to, the remaining problems will also be solved," Mujahid wrote on Twitter. "If the agreement is not committed to ... the problems will certainly increase."

The US intelligence community renewed concerns on Tuesday about the outlook for the US-backed government in Kabul, which is clinging to an eroding stalemate.

In Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, officials said they would carry on with peace talks and their forces defending the country.

"Now that there is an announcement on foreign troops withdrawal within several months, we need to find a way to coexist," said Abdullah Abdullah, a top peace official and former presidential candidate. "We believe that there is no winner in Afghan conflicts and we hope the Taliban realize that too."

Waheed Omer, director of the Afghan government's public affairs office, said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would speak with Biden in the near future to discuss the withdrawal plan. Omer said Afghan forces have been carrying out the vast majority of operations on their own and would continue to do so.

UNCERTAIN FATE

Some analysts said the departure plan appeared to surrender Afghanistan to an uncertain fate.

"There is no good way that the US can withdraw from Afghanistan. It cannot claim victory, and it cannot wait indefinitely for some cosmetic form of peace," said Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

US officials can claim to have decimated al Qaeda's core leadership in the region years ago, including tracking down and killing the group's leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan in 2011. But ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda elements persist.

The war began after al Qaeda's 2001 attacks in which hijackers slammed airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. US-led forces succeeded in toppling Afghanistan's Taliban leaders who had given safe harbor to al Qaeda, but peace and security remained elusive.

Successive US presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, but those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a Taliban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

There is concern over the impact a withdrawal would have on human rights in Afghanistan given the gains, particularly for women and girls, during the past two decades.

"I am worried about my future," said Wida Saghar, a writer and women's rights activist in Kabul. "An unknown future awaits us, when foreign forces leave and the civil war intensifies ... then who will think about women's rights? Who will care about us?"