President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the al Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, U.S. officials said on Tuesday. He called on Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to reduce tensions stirred by a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border and proposed a summit of the estranged leaders to tackle a raft of disputes.
The disclosure of the plan came on the same day that the U.S. intelligence community released a gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, forecasting “low” chances of a peace deal this year and warning that its government would struggle to hold the Taliban insurgency at bay if the U.S.-led coalition withdraws support.
Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed to with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump.
The insurgents had threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops if that deadline was missed. But Biden would still be setting a near-term withdrawal date, potentially allaying Taliban concerns.
The Democratic president will publicly announce his decision on Wednesday,
the White House said. A senior Biden administration official said the pullout would begin before May 1 and could be complete well before the Sept. 11 deadline. Significantly, it will not would be subject to further conditions, including security or human rights.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe in staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a briefing with reporters.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to discuss the decision with NATO allies in Brussels on Wednesday, sources said.
Biden’s decision suggests he has concluded that the U.S. military presence will no longer be decisive in achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan,
a core Pentagon assumption that has long underpinned American troop deployments there. “There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the senior administration official said.
The U.S. intelligence report, which was sent to Congress, stated:
“Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield,
and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.” It remains unclear how Biden’s move would impact a planned 10-day summit starting April 24 about Afghanistan in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar.
The Taliban said they would not take part in any summits that would make decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had left the country.
The May 1 deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done safely and responsibly. U.S. officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.
It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks,
when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. The Biden administration has said al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland now.
‘ABANDON THE FIGHT’
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of planning to “turn tail and abandon the fight in Afghanistan.”
It was Trump, a Republican, who had agreed to the May 1 withdrawal.
“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” McConnell said, adding that effective counter-terrorism operations require presence and partners on the ground.
There currently are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.
Officials in Afghanistan are bracing for the withdrawal.
“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” said a senior Afghan government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Although successive U.S. presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a
Taliban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.
Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States could cut off financial assistance to Afghanistan “if there is backsliding on civil society, the rights that women have achieved.” Under previous Taliban rule, the rights of women and girls were curtailed.
Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of Senate Armed Services, called it a very difficult decision for Biden.
“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.
The White House and the Kremlin reported only the second conversation between the two since Biden took office in January,
after Western officials urged Moscow to end the build-up and Russia, in words recalling the Cold War, said its “adversary” should keep U.S. warships well away from the Crimea region.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014
and fighting has increased in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.
In a sign of concern about tensions spinning out of control in the Ukraine crisis, Biden phoned Putin to propose they meet in a third country while underlining U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“President Biden also made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to Russia’s actions,
such as cyber intrusions and election interference,” the White House said in a statement.
“The president voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” it said.
RUSSIA: BUILD-UP IS THREE-WEEK DRILL
In the first public Russian description of the build-up, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to its western border as part of a large snap drill meant to test combat readiness and respond to what he called threatening military action by NATO.
Shoigu said on state TV that
the three-week exercise, which he called successful, was due to wrap up in the next two weeks.
Shoigu said NATO was deploying 40,000 troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions. The Western alliance denies any such plans.
A senior U.S. State Department official told reporters: “We know Russia’s capacity. This enormous build-up that they’ve made militarily … to take aggressive action, but we don’t know their intentions obviously,” the official said.
Russia has regularly accused NATO of destabilizing Europe
with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.
BIDEN’S GOALS FOR SUMMIT
Biden also reaffirmed a goal to build “a stable and predictable relationship” with Russia
and said a meeting in the coming months could address “the full range of issues” facing the two world powers, the statement said.
The Kremlin said in its account of the call that Biden told Putin he wanted to normalize relations and to cooperate on arms control, Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan and climate change. It confirmed Biden had proposed a high level meeting but did not indicate how the Russian leader responded.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed the White House message during talks on the crisis in Brussels with NATO leaders and Ukraine’s foreign minister.
Blinken also said he would discuss Kyiv’s ambitions to one day join NATO – although France and Germany have long worried that bringing the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonize Russia.
“The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Tuesday.
His remarks suggest that the diplomatic niceties which the old Cold War enemies have generally sought to observe in recent decades is fraying, and that Russia would robustly push back against what it regards as unacceptable U.S. interference in its geographical sphere of influence.
Andrew Weiss, a Russia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Biden’s exchange with Putin reflected U.S. concern about Ukraine and a desire to work with Russia where they may have common interests.
“There’s an urgent need to send a signal directly to Putin that what Russia is doing in and around Ukraine is dangerous and destabilizing, even as other parts of the administration try not to foreclose cooperation on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, Afghanistan, climate change and strategic stability.”
Two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week in response to what U.S. and NATO officials say is the largest massing of Russian forces – with thousands of combat-ready troops – since Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine.
“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast,” Ryabkov said. “It will be for their own good. He called the U.S. deployment a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.
Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels after Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned what they said was the unexplained rise in Russian troop numbers.
Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow’s military actions on Ukraine’s doorstep were “very provocative”. “Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.
Kyiv has welcomed the show of Western support, but it falls short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership of NATO.
Kuleba said Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution, though he also appealed for further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military assistance to Ukraine.
Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would chair a video conference with allied defense and foreign ministers on Wednesday. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were to be present at NATO headquarters to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine, as well as on Afghanistan, the diplomats said.