'It's time to end the forever war': US withdrawal from Afghanistan to begin on May 1

'It's time to end the forever war': US withdrawal from Afghanistan to begin on May 1

President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House
President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on Apr 14, 2021, about the withdrawal of the remainder of US troops from Afghanistan. (Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday (Apr 14) it's "time to end" America's longest war with the unconditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, where they have spent two decades in a bloody, increasingly futile battle against the Taliban.

Dubbed the "forever war", the US military onslaught in Afghanistan began in response to the Sep 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.

Now, 20 years later - after almost 2,400 US military and tens of thousands of Afghan deaths - Biden named Sep 11 as the deadline by which the last US soldiers will have finally departed. The pullout will begin on May 1.

In a nationally televised address, Biden said the United States had accomplished its limited original mission of crushing the international jihadist groups behind the 9/11 attacks and that with every passing year the rationale for staying was "increasingly unclear".

Biden insisted there would be no "hasty exit", but he was adamant about his decision.

"A horrific attack 20 years ago ... cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021," he said. "It's time to end the forever war."

The conflict is at best at a stalemate. The internationally backed government in Kabul has only tenuous control in swaths of the country, while the Taliban are growing in strength, with many predicting the insurgency will seek to regain total power once the government's US military umbrella is removed.

Biden told Americans that it was time to accept reality.

"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," he said.

"I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats," he said. "I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth."

READ: NATO forces to leave together from Afghanistan: US Secretary of State Blinken

Biden's decision was not a shock. The war is hugely unpopular among voters and Biden's predecessor Donald Trump had committed to pulling out at the start of May.

"I applaud President Biden's decision," top Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said Wednesday.

However, there was immediate criticism from some quarters that the United States is abandoning the Afghan government and encouraging jihadist insurgencies.

"We're to help our adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by gift wrapping the country, and handing it right back to them," senior Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said.

Immediately after the speech, an emotional Biden walked under light rain through Arlington National Cemetery, and told reporters that his decision had not been difficult.

"It was absolutely clear, absolutely clear," he said.

AFGHAN FORCES ON OWN

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani insisted Wednesday after a phone call with Biden that his forces are "fully capable" of controlling the country.

US Marines stand guard after a blast in Helmand province in 2009, in the first decade of the Afghan
US Marines stand guard after a blast in Helmand province in 2009, in the first decade of the Afghan war. (Photo:  AFP/Manpreet Romana)

And Biden said that Washington will continue to support the Afghan government, only not "militarily", according to the excerpts.

He also said the United States will "hold the Taliban accountable" on promises to keep international militants from setting up base in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which has close links to the Taliban, should "do more" to support Afghanistan.

But the US exit will mark a profound shift in clout for the beleaguered Kabul government and its US and coalition-trained security forces.

READ: Three security personnel killed in Taliban car-bombing near Kabul

A decade ago, the United States had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Today there is a US-led NATO force of about 9,600, with some 2,500 of those soldiers American. NATO announced that the withdrawal would be "orderly, coordinated and deliberate," beginning on May 1.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the exit "entails risk" but the alternative is "a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops."

Biden had earlier considered stationing a residual US force to strike at Al-Qaeda or other international militant groups in Afghanistan or making withdrawal contingent on progress on the ground or in slow-moving peace talks.

In the end, all conditions were dropped and only guards for installations like the US embassy in Kabul will stay.

WOMEN'S FUTURE IN QUESTION

US officials are warning the Taliban - who are observing a truce with US but not with Afghan forces - not to strike coalition forces as they leave.

"We will hit back hard," a senior Biden administration official said.

A threat assessment report published Tuesday by the director of US national intelligence said the Taliban "is confident it can achieve military victory".

But CIA Director William Burns said Wednesday that after "years of sustained counterterrorism pressure" Afghan-based international militant groups are no longer a major threat to the United States itself.

Aside from the military landscape, the US exit will raise big questions over the future of attempts to modernise Afghanistan, especially for Afghan women who have benefited from increased rights, like access to education.

READ: Many women in poor nations denied the right to say no to sex, says UN report

The Taliban, who enforce an austere brand of Sunni Islam, banned women from schools, offices, music and most of daily life during their 1996-2001 rule over much of Afghanistan. Two decades later, 40 per cent of schoolchildren are girls.

Source: AFP/ec

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