President Biden's promise to remove US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 is his effort — each of the last four presidents has had one — to end America's longest war.
The deadline for Biden's withdrawal is significant — Sept. 11, 2021, is 20 years after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania that led the US to target Afghanistan in the first place.
Those two decades have seen more than 2,300 US military lives lost, tens of thousands of US wounded, countless Afghan casualties and more than $2 trillion in taxpayer money spent.
Here are some answers to key questions regarding Biden's announcement today:
- What exactly is the US trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? The stated goal of the US involvement is not to liberate women repressed by the Taliban or to end that regime. In fact, the US has been involved in peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government for years. The simplest explanation of the US goal in Afghanistan is to keep it from again becoming a hotbed for terror groups like al Qaeda. When the US left Iraq, for instance, the power vaccum helped lead to the rise of ISIS there.
- Why is Biden bent on removing the remaining 2,500 US troops? Biden said in his speech Wednesday that no amount of US forces on the ground can deter the Taliban or end the war. "It was not true when we had 98,000 US troops on the ground, and it won't be true keeping [the current] 2,500 troops on the ground... We don't think they are a game changer," a source told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. The US will still use diplomatic and monetary leverage. What's not at all clear is if those tools will get results where two decades of American military might have not.
- Will any US troops be left in Afghanistan after September 11, 2021? Very few US forces will be there and they will be focused on helping US diplomats. An exact number is unclear. It's not exactly clear, for instance, what role, if any, US special operations troops would play in Afghanistan.
- What if conditions in Afghanistan worsen between now and September? Biden's decision is said to be final and not "conditions-based." This is happening.
- What is the reaction to Biden's decision? There is bipartisan opposition. "Apparently, 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," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor Wednesday. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, tweeted when word of Biden's plans began circulating: "It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women."
- What will happen after the US and NATO forces leave? While the US will continue to try to broker a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, September may now be the de facto deadline for those talks. Biden is overruling military commanders who worry the Taliban will overrun the Afghan government once American firepower is gone. A US intelligence community assessment released Tuesday shares those concerns. "The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support," according to the official assessment of worldwide threats.
- What's it like in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan today? CNN's Nick Paton Walsh visited Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan that were the scene of US and British casualties a decade ago. He and his CNN team found women unable to go outside. Paton Walsh writes: While Kabul and the center of most main cities remain mostly under government control, vast swathes of rural Afghanistan are ruled by the fractious and varied units of the Taliban. For more than five years now in Musa Qala, they have imposed their rules despite still being in regular conflict with Afghan security forces further south in Helmand province."At the end of the day the Taliban have the power," said one resident. "It is not really possible to go against their will."