Washington — President Joe Biden will withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that precipitated the American invasion that ousted the country’s Taliban leadership, according to people familiar with the plan.

American forces, in conjunction with troops from Nato allies, will begin withdrawing before the end of April, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Tuesday. The September deadline isn’t “conditions-based” and could be completed early, the official added.

After a review of US policy that Biden ordered after taking office, the administration concluded it could address any terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan from elsewhere. The official also said the US will work with other countries to protect gains made by women in the country, a major issue given that the Taliban largely barred women from education and employment when they were in power.

The new deadline means Biden will leave a few thousand troops in the war-torn country beyond a May 1 target set in an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban in 2020. Biden had signalled that he viewed that original deadline as a “tough” one to meet given continuing violence in the country and a lack of progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The only US forces remaining in the country will be to protect US diplomats in Afghanistan, but the administration still hasn’t decided on the size and scope of its diplomatic presence — or the accompanying military footprint — the official said.

The president’s decision, which he’s expected to announce later on Wednesday, came after his administration undertook a review of US options in Afghanistan in consultation with allies from Nato also operating in the region. There are currently more than 2,500 US troops in the country, working alongside about 7,000 allied forces.

In delaying the troop removal, Biden risks Taliban-led retaliation for breaking the ceasefire agreement struck during the Trump administration, and political fallout from an American public weary from the two-decade long war. But military and diplomatic leaders had warned a rushed withdrawal could destabilise the country, leaving allied troops at risk and risking a resurgence of terrorist groups.

The US has warned the Taliban that it will respond with force if departing soldiers are attacked, and the Biden administration plans to ramp up humanitarian assistance and support for civil society as troops leave the country, the US official said.

Republican criticism

Biden’s decision drew immediate criticism from Republicans.

“Precipitously withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. “It is a retreat and abdication of American leadership.”

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said on Bloomberg Television that “we’re pulling out at a time when the Afghan government and the Afghan army may not be able to hold the country”.

Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, said it “will mean we are not leaving a residual force to address the counterterrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan, abandoning our Afghan partners during critical peace negotiations and allowing the Taliban a total victory despite their failure to fulfil their commitments under our agreement”.

Beyond ousting the Taliban, who were hosting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when the US entered the war, the Pentagon has struggled to sustain gains in Afghanistan over the past two decades. The Taliban are at their strongest since being forced from power, opium production remains high and President Ashraf Ghani’s government has seen its legitimacy eroded as it loses control of swathes of the countryside.

Violence has climbed since peace talks started in September 2020, including targeted killings of journalists, civil society members and politicians. In 2020, 8,820 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded, according to the UN.

At a news conference late in March, Biden telegraphed his intentions, saying that it would be logistically difficult to withdraw US troops by May, while adding that he couldn’t picture remaining past the end of the year.

“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” Biden said. “Just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out.”

Biden added the withdrawal would be done in a “safe and orderly way”.

A report on worldwide threats issued by US intelligence agencies on Tuesday forecast that “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year. 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.”


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