President Joe Biden all but said during his first formal press conference on Thursday that the United States would likely extend its 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan for at least a few more months beyond the May 1 withdrawal deadline set by the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban.
That’s his prerogative, of course. But some experts and advocates of withdrawing say his stated reason for keeping US troops in harm’s way for a while longer — that in terms of sheer logistics, it would be hard to pull the remaining 3,500 US troops out the country by that date — is weak.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban requiring all American service members to leave Afghanistan at the start of May. If they don’t withdraw by then, the insurgents will end a months-long moratorium on targeting US troops, potentially adding to the 2,400 Americans already killed in the war since 2001.
The choice facing Biden was always a tough one: Abide by the Trump-era agreement and leave by May 1 — risking the Taliban’s hostile takeover of the country as soon as the US departs and the reversal of progress on women’s and children’s rights that would inevitably follow; or violate the agreement and stay in order to pressure the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government, risking more dead American service members in the meantime.
Neither is a great option, which may explain why Biden seems to have chosen a sort of muddled middle path: withdraw, but likely later this year — and make it look less like a strategic decision about the US’s role in the country’s peace process going forward and more like merely a function of logistical realities on the ground.
“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” Biden said during the press conference. “Just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out.”
“If we leave, we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way,” he continued, though he also said he “can’t picture” US troops still being in Afghanistan next year.
But while there are legitimate logistical challenges to pulling out US troops by that tight deadline, some experts I spoke to aren’t convinced that’s what’s really driving Biden’s foot-dragging.
Most analysts and even top congressional Democrats acknowledge that, at this point, the US can’t withdraw from Afghanistan safely by May 1, even if Biden were to order that today.
The main problem isn’t removing the service members themselves, but rather all of their equipment, from the landlocked country. America and its allies could leave things like vehicles and guns behind as part of a hurried exit, but then the Taliban or other terrorist groups could use them for their purposes.
“It takes a while to do [this] methodically and well,” said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on the war at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
But some experts and advocates for withdrawal cite two reasons for why Biden’s rationale rings hollow.
First, the timing: “If what he wanted was the fastest possible out, that could have been the order in January,” said Andrew Watkins, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan.
Simply put, the administration is surely aware of how long a safe withdrawal takes. Biden, then, effectively made the decision to keep troops in the country beyond the deadline by not making a decision until he’d passed the point where that was possible.
Second, some say that despite its harsh rhetoric demanding “all foreign troops...withdraw on the specific date,” the Taliban probably wouldn’t consider it a violation of the agreement and start targeting American troops even if the US hadn’t gotten every last person or piece of equipment out of the country by May 1, as long as Biden had announced his order to withdraw and it was genuinely underway.
“I don’t think the Taliban are going to say ‘gotcha!’” Alexander McCoy, political director of the anti-intervention and veterans group Common Defense, tweeted after Biden’s Thursday statements.
Put together, experts say Biden’s case to the nation for why the US should remain in Afghanistan a little longer doesn’t hold up. Biden’s true intention, they divine, is that the president and his team believe their long-shot push for a diplomatic solution to the 20-year war requires prolonging America’s military presence.
Biden likely wants a limited Afghanistan extension to see his diplomatic effort through
Earlier this month, the Biden administration watched as two of their secret Afghanistan documents leaked to the public, revealing their behind-the-scenes push for a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The first was a strongly worded letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In it, Blinken said the US planned to ask the United Nations to bring together nations with interests in Afghanistan — the US, Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and India — to hash out what each party would like to see in a peace deal.
“It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed,” the secretary wrote.
Biden referenced this effort during the Thursday press conference: “There’s a UN-led process that’s beginning shortly on how to mechanically get people — how to end this war.”
Further, Blinken’s letter said the US planned to ask Turkey to host “a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” That meeting, scheduled for April in Istanbul, sounded like a new version of the US-brokered 2001 Bonn conference that appointed a transitional government in Afghanistan.
The second leaked document was a list of guiding principles meant to address the concerns and demands of both the government in Kabul and the Taliban. They included making Islam Afghanistan’s official religion, and ensuring the constitution guaranteed the protection of women’s rights and the rights of children, among many others.
All of that was important, experts said at the time, but the timeline was a problem. It would be nearly impossible to get all the countries involved to agree on a way forward in Afghanistan — let alone get Kabul and the Taliban to agree on terms — by May 1. Processes like that take many months in the best of cases.
As a result, some experts said that if a diplomatic solution is the goal, Biden needs to keep US troops in Afghanistan a while longer to signal continued American commitment to the peace process.
“If extending US troops beyond May 1 promotes the recent diplomatic initiatives, especially the Istanbul conference and the increased role of the UN, then it may prove worthwhile,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who served as a top Afghanistan official in the White Houses of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This is why most experts I spoke to believe Biden’s decision to extend America’s military mission is about diplomacy, not military logistics.
Withdrawing US troops now would remove the Biden administration’s primary source of leverage over the Taliban and the Afghan government, and show foreign nations the US wants a role in the country’s future. By staying longer, Biden can try to see the diplomatic push through to its hopeful end.
So why didn’t Biden just say that during the press conference?
Some experts said the US may still be working to agree to an extension with the Taliban, and openly stating America will remain beyond May 1 to keep the insurgents at the table wouldn’t play well until there’s an understanding. Plus, citing logistical concerns might draw less backlash from the American public than extending the military presence in search of an unlikely peace deal.
That, it seems, is Biden’s true play here. Whether or not it pays off could be a defining moment of the president’s first year of foreign policy.