Most congressional Democrats are backing President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan this year, though many harbor nagging concerns that the gains won over the last 20 years will be erased and the Taliban will retake control after American troops are no longer there.
Biden’s announcement that US troops would leave by the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks wasn’t met with a resounding endorsement from Democrats on Capitol Hill, and a handful came out in opposition. But like Biden’s rationale for leaving, many Democrats in Congress say that departing after two decades is simply the best of a long list of bad options – and now the key is for Biden’s team to execute its strategy as US troops leave to keep terrorists from regaining a foothold in Afghanistan.
Interviews with more than a dozen top national security congressional Democrats underscored that many of the previous hesitations that pushed lawmakers to support keeping a US military presence in Afghanistan over the last decade have dissipated as the war has dragged on and on.
“At the end of the day, I think the American military has done what it can do over 20 years, and I don’t think there’s really more that we can do,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who has been vocally supporting the withdrawal. “Every option has significant downsides, but I think they basically said what’s the appetite of the American public, and really, what’s right for our strategic interests … when we all agree right now that our main strategic challenge is China.”
The decision to leave Afghanistan is the most consequential foreign policy move to date in Biden’s presidency. He’s the third US president who has sought to extricate US troops from the country after American-led forces invaded in the weeks following the 2001 terrorist attacks. Biden saw firsthand how President Barack Obama struggled with the situation in Afghanistan, while President Donald Trump fought Republicans and Democrats in Congress – and even some in his Cabinet – as he pushed for an exit from the country and set the initial May 1 deadline that led to Biden’s decision to withdraw.
‘The big measurement is: do terrorist attacks emanate from Afghanistan’
For many top national security-minded Democrats, the choice to support Biden’s decision hasn’t come without raising serious concerns about what happens once US troops leave. Will the Taliban retake control? Will the gains made for Afghan women’s rights disappear?
“There’s a high probability … Afghanistan will be much worse off,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has argued against withdrawing. “What he’s doing is a giant roll of the dice. None of us really know. But we do know, we can be pretty confident if he’d stayed, it probably could have kept things from completely collapsing, at least for a time.”
The concerns Democrats are raising are a simple acknowledgment that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t have a happy ending. There’s little question things will get worse there. The question is just how bad. It’s still too soon to say what will unfold when US troops leave, whether it leads to increased violence from the Taliban, the Taliban overrunning the Afghan government or, in a worst-case scenario, a place where al Qaeda can once again launch terrorist attacks.
“I think there will be a tendency to say, ‘Oh, look, there’s violence in Afghanistan. If only we had stayed.’ I think that’s the wrong measure,” House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, told CNN. “The big measurement is: Do terrorist attacks emanate from Afghanistan?”
The Pentagon is assembling a force of around 650 troops to send to Afghanistan in the coming days to protect US forces as they withdraw, CNN reported Monday, as equipment is being packed and shipped out of the country.
The Biden administration’s top national security officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, went to Capitol Hill last week to address the full House and Senate in back-to-back classified briefings to try to explain the decision and how they plan to execute it. The Biden administration will get its first chance to publicly explain its decision to Congress on Tuesday, when Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation and a Trump administration holdover, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, hasn’t said whether he supports or opposes withdrawal, only that he understands it’s a difficult decision and he still has concerns.
“After 20 years of blood and national treasure, the question is still in my mind, how do we ultimately ensure the Taliban cannot run over the Afghan government and potentially create it as a place for terrorist attacks to take place?” Menendez told reporters last week. “How do we preserve the rights of Afghan women in civil society that have been achieved?”
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who is on the Foreign Relations Committee, has been one of the most vocal Democrats opposing Biden’s withdrawal. She told CNN she understands it was a tough decision but that she has a grave outlook on what happens next in Afghanistan.
“I think it’s an impossible situation, given the challenges facing the Afghan government and the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban,” Shaheen said. “It’s difficult to see a scenario that doesn’t end in civil war or a Taliban takeover.”
Democrats who support the withdrawal acknowledge there is a serious risk that the Taliban do take control of Afghanistan or at least take over part of the country. But they argue that the US goal in Afghanistan – the metric that Biden’s decision should be judged on – is whether al Qaeda has a resurgence there or not.
“We would have never gone to Afghanistan to defend the Afghan government against the Taliban. We went to Afghanistan to stop al Qaeda from ever being able to attack us again,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. “So I think we need to conduct ourselves in a way that we support the Afghan government, but in the end our metric of success for national security purposes has to be tied to the future of al Qaeda’s involvement there.”
Most Republicans – though not all – have hammered Biden for his plans, arguing that the withdrawal will make it more likely that terrorists will once again use Afghanistan to plot attacks against the West. They’ve chided Democrats for not joining them, noting there was bipartisan opposition to Trump’s withdrawal plan.
‘The President has to lead and has to make the decision, and that’s what he’s done’
But Biden is leading a different party from when Obama took office in 2009. The Democratic Party has gotten more liberal on domestic issues, and a sizable chunk of congressional Democrats have long called for the wars in the Middle East to end. But at the same time, many moderates who won congressional races are veterans and former national security officials who have seen the US war on terror up close and back Biden’s decision.
“I agree with the President, and that we can’t continue to accept the same justifications and same rationale that we have for the last 20 years. Because if you just talk to the generals, they’re always going to tell you, ‘Just give me another year, give me another two years, give me another 1,000 troops,’ ” said Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a retired Army Ranger. “At a certain point, the President has to lead and has to make the decision, and that’s what he’s done.”
At the same time, Trump’s efforts to remove US troops from Afghanistan shifted the calculus in certain corners of the Republican Party. Freshman GOP Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, an Army veteran, for instance, was one of the Republicans to back Biden’s decision to withdraw.
Public opinion is squarely behind US troops leaving Afghanistan. A CBS News/YouGov poll released this past weekend found 77% of respondents approved of the US removing its troops from Afghanistan.
Democrats also noted that after Trump reduced the US presence in Afghanistan, staying longer wasn’t just about maintaining the status quo – it likely would have meant an increase of troops above the 2,500 currently in the country, along with several hundred special operations forces not included in the US military’s count.
Still, Democrats are cognizant of the fact that turmoil in Afghanistan runs the risk of hurting Biden politically, especially if it fits into a broader narrative critiquing his foreign policy. Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq only to send them back in 2014 after ISIS took control of large swaths of the country – a decision Democrats say is on the minds of the Biden team as they tackle the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“I thought the briefing that we had from Secretaries Austin and Blinken was compelling. They lived through the pullout of Iraq, which is my formative experience, and then having to muster a coalition to go back in,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who’s a former Pentagon and intelligence official. “What I think will be critical is that we don’t do what we did on Iraq, which was kind of washed our hands of it, both from the executive branch and the legislative branch.”
Lawmakers say the Biden administration is still rapidly putting together the nuts and bolts of how it will withdraw from Afghanistan, as well as how the military will operate in the region. It’s not yet clear how many US troops will remain to guard the US Embassy in Kabul, for instance. Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, told CNN he has yet to get a full answer on how the US will conduct intelligence operations in Afghanistan without a military presence.
How the Biden administration responds to those questions will be key, Democrats argue, to ensuring that terrorists don’t regain a foothold there.
“I think and hope they concluded this is not closure, this is transition, that we will still have to put a major effort in the region in order to suppress al Qaeda and also to minimize the conflict that’s going on now,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, who is supportive of the decision.
“I think they concluded there were no good choices,” the Rhode Island Democrat added. “Out of all the choices, this was the least bad.”