President Joe Biden used his daily national security briefing on the morning of April 6 to deliver the news that his senior military leaders suspected was coming. He wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
In the Oval Office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to make certain. “I take what you said as a decision, sir,” Milley said, according to officials with knowledge of the meeting. “Is that correct, Mr. President?”
Over two decades of war that spanned four presidents, the Pentagon had always managed to fend off the political instincts of elected leaders frustrated with the grind of Afghanistan as commanders repeatedly requested more time and more troops. Even as the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan steadily decreased to the 2,500 who still remained, Defense Department leaders still cobbled together a military effort that managed to protect the United States from terrorist attacks even as it failed, spectacularly, to defeat the Taliban in a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for 2,000 years.
The current military leadership hoped it, too, could convince a new president to maintain at least a modest troop presence, trying to talk Biden into keeping a residual force and setting conditions on any withdrawal. But Biden refused to be persuaded.
The two Pentagon leaders stood before Biden near the same Resolute Desk where President George W. Bush reviewed plans in 2001 to send in elite Special Operations troops to hunt for Osama bin Laden, only to see bin Laden melt over the border into Pakistan. It was the same desk where President Barack Obama decided on a surge of forces in 2009, followed by a rapid drawdown, only to discover that the Afghan military was not able to defend itself despite billions of dollars in training. It was there that President Donald Trump declared that all U.S. troops were coming home — but never carried through a plan to do so.
There would be no conditions put on the withdrawal, Biden told the men, cutting off the last thread — one that had worked with Trump and that Austin and Milley hoped could stave off a full drawdown.
They were told zero meant zero.
In that moment, the war — which had been debated across four presidents, prosecuted with thousands of commando raids, cost 2,400 American fatalities and 20,000 injured, with progress never quite being made — began its final chapter. It will be over, Biden has promised, by the 20th anniversary of the attacks that stunned the world and led to more than 13,000 airstrikes.
How this last chapter of the U.S.’ time in Afghanistan will end is a story that remains to be written.
For Biden, the specter of helicopters evacuating the stranded, as happened in Vietnam in 1975, or American hostages being executed by Islamist militants clad in black, as happened in Syria in 2014, looms large. “We’ve seen this movie before,” Austin warned the president during one of several meetings at the White House before Biden made his decision.
But Biden had sat through hundreds of briefings on Afghanistan during his years as a senator, a vice president, a presidential candidate and a president-elect. Few if any of the advisers who joined him for four big Afghanistan policy debates could tell him anything that he had not heard before.
For Biden, it came down to a simple choice, according to officials with knowledge of the debate: acknowledge that the Afghan government and its fragile security forces would need a U.S. troop presence to prop them up indefinitely, or leave.
“No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave,” Biden said in announcing his decision Wednesday. “So, when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years?”
The story of how Biden decided to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan should surprise no one who has spent more than 10 minutes in his company over the past two decades. Yes, he had joined 97 other senators Sept. 14, 2001, to vote in favor of going to war in Afghanistan. He had even been in favor of the Iraq War the next year.
But Biden turned on both endeavors and told anyone who would listen, in expository speeches that sometimes lasted for hours. In 2008, during visits to Afghanistan as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he “found confusion at all levels about our strategy and objectives,” Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, wrote in a memoir, “Duty.” Biden was so frustrated with the Afghan leadership, Gates added, that he once threw down his napkin and walked out of a dinner with President Hamid Karzai.
As vice president, Biden clashed with the Pentagon, including Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about troop levels in the country, arguing for bringing them down to a minimal counterterrorism force. (He lost that battle.) And Biden was furious, Obama reported in his memoir, at generals who were trying to force a decision to commit additional troops with leaks saying that if more were not sent, the result would be mission failure.
Obama wrote that Biden used a vivid epithet and warned him about generals who “are trying to box in a new president.” The vice president leaned forward, putting his face “a few inches from mine and stage-whispered, ‘Don’t let them jam you,’” Obama recalled.
Indeed, a quiet lobbying campaign by top Pentagon officials and regional commanders to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years, if not longer, started soon after Biden took office in January.
Military officials who had become frustrated with dealing with Trump, an unpredictable president who often blindsided them with tweets stating that U.S. troops would be coming home from one military engagement or another, said the chance to deal with a president who would actually follow a policy process before announcing a decision was a welcome one. But they also knew from the start that the methods they had employed with Trump were likely to no longer work.
The Defense Department had fended off an effort by Trump to abruptly pull out all remaining U.S. troops by last Christmas. Trump eventually ordered the force cut roughly in half — to 2,500, the smallest presence in Afghanistan envisioned by U.S. counterterrorism planners, from 4,500.
In the new president, Pentagon officials and top commanders were holding on to the hope that because Biden had campaigned during the Obama years to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan (as opposed to 100,000 troops), they might have a more sympathetic ear.
Shortly after Austin was sworn in Jan. 22, two days after the inauguration, he, Milley and two top military officers — Gen. Austin Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of the military’s Central Command — were in lock step in recommending that about 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon’s behind-the-scenes effort got a lift from a congressionally appointed panel led by a friend of all four men: Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., a retired four-star Marine general who was also a former top commander in Afghanistan and past chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Feb. 3, it recommended that the Biden administration should abandon the May 1 exit deadline negotiated with the Taliban and instead reduce U.S. forces further only as security conditions improved.
The report by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel examining the peace deal reached in February 2020 under the Trump administration, found that withdrawing troops based on a strict timeline, rather than how well the Taliban adhered to the agreement to reduce violence and improve security, risked the stability of the country and a potential civil war once international forces left.
The panel said that experts told it that 4,500 U.S. troops, the number in Afghanistan last fall, was the right figure.
But sending additional troops to Afghanistan went against everything Biden had advocated over the years. Even before he was elected, his staff had begun examining force levels in Afghanistan and, more importantly, what they could accomplish. There were teams of foreign policy specialists, all out of power for a number of years, looking anew at Afghanistan — and asking the question of what would happen if all U.S. troops were pulled out.
The Pentagon effort received another setback when Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, conveyed intelligence assessments that the nexus of terrorism had shifted from Afghanistan to Africa and other havens. That raised the question: Was the United States massing its forces for a 2001 threat or a 2021 threat?
But Haines and the newly confirmed CIA director, William Burns, were also clear that if Biden decided to pull out, there would be costs to intelligence collection. On Wednesday, presenting the government’s annual threat assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burns said, “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That is simply a fact.”
There was another worry circulating in the White House, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. They feared that once the United States left, it was only a matter of time — maybe months, maybe years — until Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, fell. The discussion, one participant said, reminded him of accounts he had read of the decision-making over troops exiting Vietnam in 1973. Then, the Nixon administration was seeking a “decent interval,” to use the phrase at the time, before the fall of the Saigon government. It turned out the interval was a little more than two years, before people were evacuated from a rooftop 46 years ago, captured in a photograph that came to symbolize the failure.
The participant said the discussions on Afghanistan in the context of the collapse of South Vietnam were eerie.
But Biden argued that if Kabul were to be attacked, there was not much a mere 3,000 U.S. troops in the country could do about it. And as long as they were there, wouldn’t the Afghan government have little reason to become self-reliant for its own defense?
As the policy debate extended into March, Biden administration officials said they grew alarmed at news reports that suggested the lengthy debate meant that troops would stay.
At meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels on March 23 and 24, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to put allies on notice that they should start thinking about how to conduct withdrawals of their own troops in Afghanistan, a combat disengagement that the Pentagon describes as a “military retrograde operation.” Such movements often — as they are now — require sending additional troops to make sure that the departing forces can get out safely.
For Pentagon officials, it was starting to become clear that their efforts would fall short this time. But officials insisted that throughout the process, Biden heard them out.
“What I can tell you is, this was an inclusive process, and their voices were heard and their concerns taken into consideration as the president made his decision,” Austin told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, referring to the generals.
“But now that the decision has been made, I call upon them to lead their forces through this effort, through this transition,” Austin said. “And knowing them all very well, as I do, I have every confidence that they will in fact lead their forces through this effort.”
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U.S. officials said Saturday that orders for the remaining troops to start leaving could be issued in the next few days. If they face no threats from the Taliban, the forces could be completely withdrawn well before the Sept. 11 deadline, the officials said.
The military commanders who have spent the past 20 years minding Afghanistan said that U.S. troops executed the mission as well as anyone could have. The two-decade war effort degraded al-Qaida and killed bin Laden.
But the rest — nation-building, democratization, establishing an effective internal security force, defending the rights of women and minorities — may have been a step beyond any military’s capabilities.
Adm. Mike Mullen recalled a dinner he had with the Pakistani ambassador in 2007, one month before he was sworn in as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As Mullen left the dinner, the ambassador, Mahmud Ali Durrani, handed him a gift. It was a long, thin, oddly shaped book done by the British just after the epic partition that divided the region along religious lines, displacing 20 million people and leading to an estimated 2 million deaths in sectarian violence.
“You need to read this,” Durrani told Mullen.
“Why?” the admiral asked.
“Because nothing has changed,” Durrani replied.