Biden’s Afghanistan decision triggers worries on Capitol Hill

A pullout of U.S. troops by September may be rocky and could have ripple effects that are hard to predict

President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Posted April 14, 2021 at 4:50pm

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that all but a relative handful of U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan this year, a decision that experts said will lead to risks, rewards and ramifications that no one can fully foresee, despite partisans’ insistence that the outcome is preordained.

Rather than pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May 1, as former President Donald Trump had planned under a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, the troops will leave by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered within weeks the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Biden said.

Congressional reaction fell along mostly predictable, partisan lines. Some security experts, meanwhile, warned that the pullout of U.S. troops, even if warranted, may not go smoothly and will probably have second-order effects on America’s standing in the world. 

“In reality, I don’t think we know if it’s a great decision or a bad one, and we won’t know for a while, because it depends on how things play out,” said Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star Army general who commanded coalition troops in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.

Speaking in a webcast Wednesday sponsored by FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, McChrystal warned the Taliban may increase attacks on U.S. troops in the months ahead, but he hastened to add that should not change America’s policy. 

“It’s possible that the Taliban will try to sort of kick us in the back on our way out of Afghanistan just to gain stature,” he said. “But I would urge Americans, at that point: that’s not a time for us to get emotional and say we need to turn back around and re-engage the war with the Taliban. If we decide to withdraw from Afghanistan, for larger policy reasons, unless those reasons change, we should stick with the policy.”

Biden said any such attacks would be met with “all the tools at our disposal.”

Handling a terrorist resurgence

Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan when McChrystal commanded forces there just over a decade ago. But today there are far fewer — about 3,000 American military personnel in the country, plus up to 7,000 troops from other nations.

After September, Biden plans to retain in Afghanistan only a small force to protect American diplomats. He also pledged on Wednesday to continue U.S. financial aid to the Afghan government and its security forces, and he promised to promote peace talks between the Taliban and the central government.

The president’s announcement came one day after publication of the 2021 worldwide threat assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies. In it, they warned that the Kabul government is on its heels in the fight against the Taliban. 

On Wednesday, U.S. spymasters testified on their assessment at the Senate Intelligence Committee.

William Burns, the CIA director, told the committee that Biden’s planned withdrawal would decrease the U.S. government’s ability to collect intelligence and respond to events.

But, he quickly added, America would still be capable of responding should Afghanistan again become a haven for terrorists as it was before 2001. 

Neither al-Qaida nor the Islamic State in Afghanistan (known as IS-Khorasan) have the capacity at present to attack the United States from bases in Afghanistan, Burns said. Affiliates of those groups in other parts of the world, such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, pose “more serious threats today,” he said. 

Although a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would “diminish” America’s ability to gain intelligence on — and respond to — threats in Afghanistan, the United States will retain or grow a “suite of capabilities that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort” by terrorists in Afghanistan, he said.

McChrystal had a similar take. 

“If Afghanistan were to be used as a safe haven, then we would reopen the question of what we do about that,” he said. “We have that problem in other parts of the world. So I think that Afghanistan isn’t particularly unique there, and it wouldn’t be a rationale for leaving large numbers” of American troops there.

Precisely how the looming U.S. withdrawal will affect global security will depend on how the various forces react — the Taliban, the terrorists and neighboring countries, Burns said.

Burns added there is “a significant risk once the U.S. military and the coalition militaries withdraw. But we will work very hard at CIA and with all of our partners to try to provide the kind of strategic warning to others in the U.S. government that enables them and us to address that threat if it starts to materialize.”

The comments of McChrystal, Burns and others make plain the risks inherent in the withdrawal and show how carefully the experts believe the policy change must be orchestrated. While those remarks would seem to fortify Republican criticisms of the withdrawal, the experts’ confidence in America’s ability to handle any resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan bolsters Biden’s case for leaving. 

Partisan row

Senior administration officials divulged Biden’s decision to reporters on Tuesday. Not long after, Republicans and Democrats gathered in their respective camps on opposite sides of the issue. 

“After sinking two decades of blood and treasure into wars in the Middle East, it’s time to bring our troops home,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on the Senate floor Wednesday. 

A notable dissent from Democrats’ general support of the move came from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who pronounced herself “very disappointed” in the decision in a statement on Tuesday. 

“Although this decision was made in coordination with our allies, the U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave without verifiable assurances of a secure future,” Shaheen said. “It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women.”

Biden’s proposal drew flak from most Republicans, many of whom said the selection of Sept. 11 as the withdrawal deadline was offensive. 

“Apparently we’re to help our adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by gift-wrapping the country and handing it back to them,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a floor speech.  

When Biden explained his Afghanistan decision Wednesday, he referred to the need to focus on China, which is first on the Pentagon’s list of growing threats around the world. 

“Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that will determine our standing and reach today and into the years to come,” Biden said.

But China may see the withdrawal from Afghanistan, whatever its merits from a U.S. perspective, as a sign of American weakness, McChrystal said. Whether the Afghanistan withdrawal is “the correct strategic decision or not,” he said, China “will interpret it as an example of weakness.” 

To the extent others around the world share that perception, it could have effects beyond Afghanistan that supporters and critics of Biden’s decision should recognize, he suggested.