WASHINGTON — The previous two presidents of the United States declared that they wanted to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and they both decided in the end that they could not do it.
Now President Joe Biden is facing the same issue, with a deadline less than three months away.
The Pentagon, uncertain what the new commander in chief will do, is preparing variations on a plan to stay, a plan to leave and a plan to withdraw very, very slowly — a reflection of the debate now swirling in the White House. The current deadline is May 1, in keeping with a much-violated peace agreement that calls for the complete withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces.
The deadline is a critical decision point for Biden, and it will come months before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that prompted the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida.
Two decades later, the strategic goals have shifted many times, from counterterrorism and democratization to nation-building, and far more limited goals that President Barack Obama’s administration called “Afghan good enough.” Biden — who argued as vice president throughout Obama’s term for a minimal presence — will have to decide whether following his instincts to get out would run too high a risk of a takeover of the country’s key cities by the Taliban.
Biden, one senior aide noted, started his long career in the Senate just before the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam; the image of helicopters plucking Americans and a few Vietnamese from a roof was a searing symbol of a failed strategy. Biden is highly aware of the risks of something similar transpiring in Kabul, the Afghan capital, if all Western troops leave, and he has privately described the possibility as haunting, aides said.
But the president also questions whether the small remaining contingent of Americans can accomplish anything after 20 years in which almost 800,000 U.S. troops have deployed, or whether it will ever be possible to bring them home.
Biden has kept in place Zalmay Khalilzad, the longtime diplomat who had negotiated the peace agreement under President Donald Trump, in hopes of continuity in dealing with the Taliban and the Afghan government. But the key advisers on the issue are Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan — along with Jon Finer, Sullivan’s deputy.
By all accounts, Biden will be guided by his own experience, and he has yet to make a decision. Allies will be looking for some indications at a NATO summit meeting that starts Wednesday, though Biden’s aides say they are not rushing a critical decision.
“We are conducting a rigorous review of the situation we’ve inherited, including all relevant options and with full consideration of the consequences of any potential course of action,” said Emily J. Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “It would be wrong for anyone to assume the outcome of that process at this point.”
At the same time, the Taliban and the Afghan government are gearing up for a violent spring. Administration officials last week started discussions over how to proceed with Afghan officials whom Trump left out of his deal with the Taliban.
One option under consideration, aides said, would be to extend the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline by six months to give all sides more time to decide how to proceed. But it is unclear that the Taliban would agree — or whether Biden would.
At the center of the decision-making is a new American president who has had to stand by for 20 years while other leaders ignored his advice on Afghanistan and committed large numbers of U.S. troops to a war effort there, overriding his argument that all the United States needed was a streamlined, focused counterterrorism presence.
The decision is harder because if Biden decides to withdraw, he will bear some responsibility — and much of the blame — if there is a collapse of the elected Afghan government that U.S. troops and their NATO allies have fought and died for and spent billions of dollars propping up.
In the panoply of foreign policy decisions facing the president, he and his senior national security aides do not view Afghanistan as the most far-reaching. The right relationship with China is far more central to American prosperity. Carrying through on Biden’s promise not to let Russia roll over the United States is more important to its security. The Iranian nuclear program looms over Middle East calculations. Afghanistan is deeply personal to him, and the most influential voice the president will listen to may be his own.
“His head is more in the game on this because he has been connecting with these people around the world for years,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Biden administration.
Katulis recalled bumping into Biden at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in 2008, when the president was a senator visiting the country as part of a congressional tour with his colleagues John Kerry, who would become secretary of state, and Chuck Hagel, who would become secretary of defense. It was midnight in the hotel’s executive club, Katulis recalled, and Biden wanted to chat South Asia. For two hours.
“He was just energized by this issue,” Katulis said.
The May 1 deadline, enshrined in a peace deal reached with the Taliban nearly a year ago, will be the focus of the meeting in Brussels this week of allied defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. There are now more than twice as many troops from NATO allies in Afghanistan as there are Americans, and as they gauge their own commitment to the country, they are looking to Biden and Austin for a road map.
The president is already being lobbied by the same voices that, for the past 20 years, have advocated maintaining at least a limited troop presence in Afghanistan.
In December, before Biden was inaugurated, the bipartisan, congressionally appointed Afghan Study Group run by the United States Institute of Peace met with his foreign policy advisers to brief them on a report on Afghanistan. The report, which was released Feb. 3, argued, in essence, for abandoning the May 1 timetable by saying that the Taliban had not met the conditions for a U.S. withdrawal as set by the Trump-Taliban agreement.
The group said that going to zero troops, as the Trump-Taliban agreement called for, would lead to civil war, set back American interests in the region and render pointless the sacrifice of 3,500 coalition troops killed prosecuting the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.
John F. Kirby, the new Pentagon press secretary, insisted that the Biden administration stood by the agreement, with its commitment for a full troop withdrawal, but he expressed pessimism that the Taliban would do what they were supposed to: Cut ties with al-Qaida and reduce violence.
“Without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement,” Kirby said. “But we’re still committed to that.”
But that was the standard line from the Pentagon even during the Trump administration. What is unclear at this point is where Biden falls on the spectrum.
When he was vice president, he battled Pentagon leaders in urging his boss, Obama, to limit the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“Joe and a sizable number of NSC staffers,” Obama wrote in his memoir, “A Promised Land,” viewed a proposal by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to surge tens of thousands of troops into the country “as just the latest attempt by an unrestrained military to drag the country deeper into a futile, wildly expensive nation-building exercise, when we could and should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism efforts.”
Although Biden lost the argument in 2009, Obama came around to his position by the end of his presidency after hundreds of Americans and allied troops had been killed and the gains of the surge had been mostly lost to the Taliban.
Biden must decide whether it is possible to defeat terrorist groups even if there is no physical troop presence. Aides say he is acutely aware that most Americans are tired of the war and doubtful that continued spending, in blood and treasure, will accomplish anything. And Afghanistan, without doubt, has receded in the public consciousness.
For Biden, that could change the instant that Afghanistan is used again as a base from which to launch another terrorist attack on the United States or Western targets. For an example, he needs only to look to Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which followed Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 after the end of the combat mission there.
Critics contend that the Taliban have not yet pledged to cut ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups threatening the United States, as the February 2020 agreement called for.
Moreover, some analysts say that the Taliban, bolstered by battlefield triumphs and success at the bargaining table in Qatar in winning the release of more than 5,000 prisoners, remain confident they can wait out the new administration and have little incentive to compromise.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, a retired four-star Marine general and a former chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who helped lead the Afghan Study Group, said the United States still had leverage. Dunford, a former top commander in Afghanistan, said that beyond increased battlefield pressure, the Taliban want international recognition as a legitimate political movement and a relief from punishing economic sanctions.
One option gaining traction among some former diplomats and Afghanistan specialists is for Washington, working with its allies, to negotiate a monthslong extension to the troop withdrawal deadline. That would buy time for the new administration to bolster the peace talks in Qatar; rally support from other states in the region, including Pakistan; and conduct a new assessment of the future terrorism threat in Afghanistan.
“It won’t be easy, but it’s feasible,” said Laurel E. Miller, a former top State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan diplomacy for Obama and Trump. “The Taliban have an interest in keeping the process going because the process has been working for them.”
If that approach fails, however, the Taliban have threatened to resume attacks against American and other NATO forces if the United States unilaterally decides to keep its 2,500 troops in the country beyond the May deadline. The U.S. forces are now hunkered down in about a dozen bases and perform two main missions: counterterrorism operations and advising Afghan security forces at various headquarters.
Preparing for the possibility of renewed attacks against Americans, the military’s Central Command has been ordered to draw up a wide range of options to cover whether troops stay or go, and to counter even higher levels of Taliban violence, Pentagon officials say.
The administration could, for instance, temporarily increase the number of troops in the country, reversing Trump’s order to cut forces in the final weeks of his term. That could prove politically risky for Biden as he seeks to push higher-priority legislation, such as pandemic relief, through Congress.
Another option would be to increase the number of American airstrikes against Taliban targets across the country, like the fighters threatening major Afghan cities such as Kabul and Kandahar. This could require sending more strike aircraft to land at bases in the Middle East or ensuring that an aircraft carrier with its strike wing is operating in the Persian Gulf region, military officials said.
Kelly A. Ayotte, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire and another leader of the congressionally mandated Afghanistan commission, summed up the sentiment of not only panel members but many administration officials.
“It is not whether we leave,” she said, “but it’s how we leave.”