April 14, 2021

CNAS Responds: Biden Announces Full U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan

On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, President Biden announced that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. In the advisory below, CNAS experts unpack key developments and possible outcomes to watch for.

  • Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer: "President Biden has become the third commander in chief to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Two decades in, the grinding war there has become frustrating and exhausting. In contrast to previous presidential announcements, today's has the air of finality.

    "Yet the risks endure: that the Taliban will topple the Afghan government after a U.S. departure, that the al Qaeda and ISIS presence will grow, and that counterterrorism operations against them will be far more difficult without a presence in-country. America's residual troop presence may be the difference between a government that can hang on and outright Taliban victory. Time will tell.

    "Assuming the deadline holds, attention must now shift to mitigating the risks: by securing regional access for counterterrorism operations, by committing enduring financial support for the government and security forces, and by using what diplomatic capital remains to pressure the Taliban. Calamity may ensue despite such efforts. If it does, let us at a minimum endeavor to protect the lives of those many Afghans who, at tremendous risk, have thrown in with the American cause."
  • Lisa Curtis, Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program: "President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September risks a Taliban return to power and reversal of human rights and civil society gains, particularly for women. It could also inspire a new wave of Islamist extremism as the Taliban and al-Qaeda push a victory narrative that resonates with global extremists.

    Now that the United States has forfeited its strongest point of leverage—a troop presence—it is unlikely the Taliban will pursue political accommodation or reduce violence in the interest of peace. Coinciding with the U.S. troop drawdown announcement is news that the Taliban will skip peace talks planned for later this month in Turkey.

    The United States should now shift its focus to working with regional players who have an interest in a stable Afghanistan and maintaining robust financial assistance to the Afghan security forces, with whom we have partnered for the last 20 years. These steps offer at least a small chance of avoiding chaos and a situation ripe for civil war and potential re-emergence of a terrorist safe haven."
  • Chris Kolenda, Adjunct Senior Fellow: "President Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, reflects a calculation that America has done all that its troops could reasonably do to support a government that suffers deep legitimacy challenges. The Biden administration should continue supporting the peace process, aid, and development.

    "The United States owes its citizens, service members, allies, and partners a reckoning on what keeps going wrong in these wars and to undertake reforms that restore faith in American leadership."
  • Jason Dempsey, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Military, Veterans, and Society: "With the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan should come some introspection about the limits of military power and the danger of simplistic narratives of American capabilities. Initial responses suggest that this will not be the case. We will hear a lot in the coming days about ‘conditions-based’ approaches and all that Afghanistan might lose with our withdrawal. Notably missing from these arguments will be any acknowledgment of the inefficiencies of a military-led effort, how our efforts have fed into Afghanistan’s dysfunction, and why we should expect more of the same to lead to better outcomes now."
  • Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Jr. (Ret.), Adjunct Senior Fellow: "The departure of 'all deployed' troops from Afghanistan must be understood in the context of the enduring traditional mission of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and subsequently, that of other NATO and Allied nations. If zero means zero U.S. troops, the risk to the U.S., other Allied Nations, and the Afghan people will increase given the existing challenges of current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. An enhanced Defense Department presence, under the U.S. Embassy charter, with traditional train and assist missions, as well as some form of intelligence support, will be critical as a forcing function for Taliban compliance and Afghan stability."
  • Chris Dougherty, Senior Fellow for Defense: "If this is the end, it’s an overdue acceptance of something that was clear decades ago: there’s no 'Goldilocks' solution in Afghanistan. There is no scenario in which U.S. forces leave, the Afghan government remains in control, human rights are respected, the Taliban peacefully reintegrates into Afghan society, and the country doesn’t become a haven for terrorists. No amount of years, deployments, lives lost, or taxpayer dollars were ever going to create this scenario. It’s bitter medicine for the nation, especially for those whose lives have been touched by this war, but waiting won’t make it go down any easier."
  • Jim Townsend, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Security: "On 9/11, I spent a long evening helping U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nick Burns prepare for an emergency session of NATO’s North Atlantic Council; when I left, the Marine Guard had changed into his combat fatigues and a .50 caliber machine gun guarded NATO’s front gate. While NATO invoked Article 5, Allies went to war with us in Afghanistan more out of loyalty to an ally who came to their aid in years past. It was hard being a U.S. ally in wartime: the United States was sharply critical of Allies arriving on the battlefield with restrictive political caveats. Allies also learned searing lessons and suffered tragic losses in a fight for which they, like us, were not prepared. But Allies stayed by our side in their longest war; they paid their share of blood and treasure. As NATO forces depart, they will be both proud of their effort and sobered by the thankless price that comes with loyalty."
  • Vance Serchuk, Adjunct Senior Fellow: "President Biden inherited a terrible dilemma in Afghanistan, and there is still much to learn about the details of his proposal. However, it is clear that an unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces by September will not end the war in Afghanistan or the wider war on terror. Instead, it is more likely to inaugurate a new, even more dangerous phase of both these conflicts. It has been the U.S.-led international military presence in Afghanistan, in partnership with Afghan forces, that has kept pressure on extremist networks in the region and prevented them from reestablishing sanctuary. That pressure will now diminish and cannot be substituted by “over-the-horizon” capabilities. U.S. withdrawal also significantly increases the risk Afghanistan collapses into the kind of civil war that has repeatedly nurtured Islamist terrorist networks with global ambitions. Nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that the Taliban—having ruthlessly waged a war against international norms—can now suddenly be enticed to embrace them.

    "America’s Afghanistan exit also raises a set of disturbing questions. If Washington cannot summon the political will to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan as a hedge against another 9/11, what does that suggest about our wherewithal in what promises to be a much more difficult and costly competition with China? It also sends a message that—whatever U.S. rhetoric about standing up for universal rights and rules-based order against ruthless authoritarians—Washington can be intimidated into abandoning these principles, along with precisely the people who have staked their lives on their promise. For this reason, it is especially urgent the Biden Administration and Congress put forward a plan for helping and resettling Afghans who have embraced partnership with the United States and the freedoms it stands for, rather than leaving them to a gruesome fate."

To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

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