President Joe Biden, facing his first major decision about American troops abroad, has found himself weighing competing instincts: to wind down the 20-year war in Afghanistan, a position he’s held for more than a decade, or to remain in the hopes of avoiding a Taliban takeover.
The decision, which administration and congressional sources said could be made as soon as this week, will come after months of deliberations.
Most officials and those involved in US policy toward Afghanistan believe it unlikely that Biden will order all troops out of the country by the May 1 deadline established in a peace deal the previous administration struck with the Taliban. However, he has not yet made up his mind, and he told ABC News last week that meeting the deadline “could happen” but would be “tough.” One option on the table is extending the withdrawal deadline by six months – though it’s far from clear that would prove acceptable to the Taliban.
During the deliberations Biden has chafed at suggestions US troops should remain in Afghanistan for much longer, according to people familiar with the matter, reminding his advisers that – like his two predecessors – he promised voters he would end the country’s longest war.
Yet a countervailing impulse has also taken hold. Biden worries that removing American troops from Afghanistan by May 1 would set the country up for collapse. Warned by his military commanders of such a possibility, Biden has ruminated on the burden of becoming a president remembered for allowing the war to end in ignoble failure.
As he nears a final decision, Biden is getting to grips with the difficulty his predecessors faced in winding down an unpopular and mostly ignored conflict that does not figure highly into his foreign policy vision. Wrestling with the decision, Biden has consulted a wide array of advisers but comes to the situation with long-held views and more experience in Afghanistan than either of the men who preceded him.
Weighing the options
His dueling instincts have left Biden’s national security team to create the series of options he is now weighing: Abide by the May 1 deadline to withdraw troops, a decision Biden recognizes must be made in the coming days if it’s to work logistically; extend the deadline six months and risk Taliban reprisal; or plot a slower withdrawal that doesn’t have an end date.
Defense officials say they can adapt to whatever Biden decides, but many say privately they need a decision by April 1 if it’s a complete pullout, which many view now as an unlikely course of action.
Behind the scenes, officials have acknowledged that the current level of US troops in Afghanistan – 2,500 – is roughly the minimum needed to help maintain and support Afghan security and governance. One former administration official with significant military and direct policy expertise told CNN that closer to 4,500 troops are really needed.
The US routinely has hundreds of special operations forces in Afghanistan it doesn’t acknowledge in the official troop count, a factor that defense officials say will be critical to whatever final decision the President makes. The administration could decide to not publicly count those forces and just rotate them and other units in and out of the country regularly.
Biden was briefed again Monday on the state of play, officials said, including by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who was returning from a surprise trip to Kabul. Austin is the highest-ranking official to visit Afghanistan during Biden’s administration and he consulted with US military leaders and Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, about the forthcoming decision.
Biden also plans to speak with Secretary of State Antony Blinken following meetings at the Brussels headquarters of NATO, where the future of the US troop presence was a central topic of discussion on Tuesday. As of February, there were about 9,500 total NATO troops in Afghanistan, including 2,500 from the US. If the US pulled out entirely, it’s unlikely other NATO governments would support keeping their troops there.
“We all see that there is no easy solution. There is no risk-free path ahead. I will need to prepare for all options,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday following the meetings.
Blinken said the Biden administration is “working through our Afghanistan policy” and was at NATO to share the President’s latest thinking and to listen to the allies for their input. He signaled the US had made a commitment to the alliance and the timing for withdrawal may not be right.
“We went in together, we have adjusted together and when the time is right we will leave together,” he said.
Biden has witnessed that progression since his time as a US senator, when he joined his Senate colleagues in a unanimous vote in support of the 2001 resolution that authorized the use of military force against “nations, organizations, or persons” President George W. Bush determined were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Later Biden traveled in congressional delegations to Afghanistan as the war dragged on. By the time he was vice president, he’d come to argue against major troop increases – advice that for a period went ignored.
As he weighs his current decision, Biden has noted to some members of his team that it has been his position since early in President Barack’s Obama administration to reduce the US presence in Afghanistan to minimal levels – including, in 2009, via a handwritten memo sent through a secure fax machine to Obama from his Thanksgiving vacation on Nantucket.
His message has been interpreted by officials as Biden saying he’s spent years thinking about this issue. In discussing the matter, the President has also noted the war’s enduring unpopularity among the American people.
Still, the prospect of seeing the Taliban regain control of the country has proved haunting to Biden. He has privately expressed fears of a Taliban takeover should US troops withdraw, a prospect he’s likened to the embarrassing ending of the Vietnam War, and he appears to officials very aware of the risks that withdrawing now would pose.
Biden’s top general is against a withdrawal
Among those advocating against a withdrawal, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been the most ardent, suggesting that pulling American troops from Afghanistan now could cause the government in Kabul to collapse and prompt backsliding in women’s rights, according to people familiar with the conversations. Milley has argued his case in very strong terms during some meetings of top-level national security officials.
“We’re not going to comment on ongoing national security decisions. General Milley’s advice to the President and Secretary of Defense will stay confidential,” Col. David Butler, a spokesman for the Joint Staff, said in response.
The deadline for a decision comes against the backdrop of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, where journalists, civil society workers and government employees have been targeted by shootings and small bomb attacks in recent months as the government and the Taliban work to broker a peace deal.
The Taliban have held off attacks on US-led forces after they signed the peace agreement with the Trump administration but have warned there will be consequences if the US does not meet the May 1 deadline. US military leaders, meanwhile, have alleged the Taliban aren’t holding up their side of the agreement to reduce violence and sever ties with terror groups.
Biden officials believe they got a late start in weighing options for Afghanistan because of the delayed transition under President Donald Trump, who refused to acknowledge the results of the election for weeks. Officials said at the time that they weren’t able to understand fully the US force posture or assess the entire scope of the agreement the Trump administration had struck with the Taliban.
Some Biden officials were under the impression there were secret elements to that agreement that they did not have access to until the transition began.
“The fact is, that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the President – the former President – worked out. So we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government, and that decision’s – it’s in process now,” Biden told ABC last week.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.