The US has formally begun its withdrawal from Afghanistan after almost 20 years in the country, Army Gen. Austin Miller confirmed on Sunday. The news comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden announced that all US troops would be out of the country by September 11, 2021 — a significant achievement that eluded his predecessors.
According to the New York Times, Miller, the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Sunday that he had received his orders, and the US would begin “transitioning bases and equipment to the Afghan security forces.”
“All of our forces are now preparing to retrograde,” Miller said, according to a CNN report of the same press conference. “Officially, the notification date will be the first of May, but at the same time, as we start taking local actions, we have already begun that.”
Previously, the Trump administration had set May 1 as the deadline for withdrawing all US troops from the country as part of a deal struck with the Taliban in February 2020, but as of this month, the US had about 3,500 troops still in Afghanistan.
As Vox’s Alex Ward reported earlier this month, Biden inherited that promise, and essentially chose to extend the timeline for removal, but without the Taliban’s explicit approval.
“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” Biden said earlier this month in a speech announcing the new deadline. “We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely. And we will do it in full coordination with our allies and partners, who now have more forces in Afghanistan than we do.”
Currently, according to the Times, about 7,000 NATO and allied forces are in Afghanistan supporting US troops, but “those NATO forces will probably withdraw alongside the United States.”
The vast majority of the 18,000 private military contractors in the country are also set to withdraw, the Times reported Sunday, though the US will leave military equipment behind to be used by Afghan troops.
The Pentagon also emphasized that it would continue to support Afghan forces after withdrawing, though a top commander said that this would not include boots-on-the-ground involvement.
“It is our intention also to continue funding the Afghan military and that will be administered through the platform that will be our embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, who leads US Central Command, told reporters on Thursday, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon. “It is our intention to continue that support and we believe that it — it will be a tough fight for the Afghans, but we intend to continue to support them.”
In the meantime, however, the US troop presence might actually increase ahead of the September 11 deadline. The AP reported Friday that a US aircraft carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, would remain stationed in the region as the US draws down its troop presence in Afghanistan, and more troops may also be deployed “to assist with the withdrawal.”
“It’s time to end America’s longest war”
As the Pentagon begins to move on an Afghanistan withdrawal, one thing is clear: This isn’t a conditions-based withdrawal, and September 11 will be a fixed deadline for the Biden administration.
“I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said earlier this month. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
As Vox’s Alex Ward explained when Biden made his announcement, that’s something of a break from Biden’s position on the campaign trail:
Biden pledged during the presidential campaign to bring all US “combat troops” back from Afghanistan by the end of his first term. By using the squishy term “combat troops,” he was essentially leaving the door open to maintaining a small number of troops in the country whose mission would focus solely on counterterrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda, not fighting the Taliban.
It seems Biden has abandoned that approach. “We’re going to zero troops by September,” the unnamed senior official told the Post.
Biden’s plan has been the target of harsh criticism in Congress, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham deriding it as “dumber than dirt.” But in his address earlier this month, Biden expressed concern about a “significant downside risk to staying beyond May 1 without a clear timetable for departure.”
As one senior official told the Washington Post, staying longer could stimulate more conflict, not less.
“This is the immediate, practical reality that our policy review discovered,” said one person who spoke with the Post anonymously. “If we break the May 1 deadline negotiated by the previous administration with no clear plan to exit, we will be back at war with the Taliban, and that was not something President Biden believed was in the national interest.”
An apparent breakdown in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government this month may also have played a role, according to Ward. The Taliban said earlier in April that it would not participate in talks scheduled for April 16, and the conference has since been postponed, Reuters reported last week.
Whether or not talks pick back up again, though, Sunday’s news indicates that the US troop presence will end this year, after 2,448 US deaths and nearly 21,000 wounded, as well as an untold number of civilian casualties.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, at least 35,500 Afghan civilians have died since 2009, but the toll over 20 years of US involvement is certainly higher.
And a troop withdrawal will not spell the end of the turmoil in the region. Experts have cautioned that the absence of US and NATO troops could contribute to a local power vacuum that could spill across the region.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking,” Biden said. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded … in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war.”