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Biden, determining Afghan withdrawal, says “It’s time to end the eternal war”

WASHINGTON – President Biden said on Wednesday that it was time to end the eternal war in Afghanistan, saying the United States had long fulfilled its primary mission of denying terrorists asylum in the country and that leaving US forces there was no longer worth the price. blood and money.

Speaking from the same place in the White House where President George W. Bush ordered the start of the war after the 9/11 attacks nearly two decades ago, Mr Biden made the case that there was no longer any excuse – if any – to believe the military presence the United States can turn Afghanistan into a stable democracy.

About 2,500 U.S. troops on the ground there, he said, will be withdrawn gradually, beginning on May 1, with the process completed by Sept. 11, a timetable designed to signal his determination to end the annoying and largely failed chapter in the U.S. foreign policy. politics .

Military officials have suggested that the exit could be even faster, leaving only a symbolic guard for the US embassy. NATO forces, which today have a far larger presence than the United States, would also leave, European officials said.

“The war in Afghanistan should never have been an undertaking for many generations,” Mr Biden said, noting that members of the service who now serve in Afghanistan have parents who served in the same war.

“We attacked,” the president said in a grim 16-minute speech filled with flashes of emotion. “We went to war with clear goals. We have achieved these goals. “

Mr Biden has been a critic of the US presence for more than a dozen years, although his concerns were often allayed when he was vice president. Now invested with the power to order an exit, he argues that the United States has succeeded in one of its real tasks: overthrowing al Qaeda and ensuring that the country will never again be the launching pad for a terrorist attack on the United States, as it was at 11 September 2001

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

“I am now the fourth president of the United States to chair the US military presence in Afghanistan,” he continued. “Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not transfer this responsibility to the fifth. ”

Mr Biden’s tone emphasized what a humiliating moment it was for the United States. So many of the goals cited by the military and other proponents of Afghanistan’s continued presence – making the country a stable democratic ally, weakening the Taliban, fighting corruption and drug trafficking – have either been beyond the capabilities of the United States and its allies or brought only partial or weak profits.

And the price – in the life, the treasure and the focus of the nation – turned out to be staggering. Mr Biden said more than 2,400 US troops had been killed in Afghanistan as of Wednesday.

Moments after his speech, the president traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the graves of servicemen who lost their lives in Afghanistan. He said the decision to withdraw US troops was not difficult, as it was “absolutely clear” that it was time to end the war.

Standing in the rain amid rows of white tombstones, Mr Biden said he had “always been amazed by generation after generation of women and men willing to give their lives for their country”. He said a visit to the cemetery made him think of his son Bo Biden, who died of cancer in 2015 after serving in Iraq.

In his speech, Mr. Biden, who said he was the first president in 40 years to have a child serving in a war zone, dismissed the idea that exposing soldiers like his son to danger was the only way to achieve the United States. targets in places like Afghanistan, where efforts to stabilize and modernize the country by rebuilding its military, civil society and infrastructure have largely failed.

“We’ve been making this argument for a decade. It has never been effective, “he said. “US troops should not be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries. You know, this is nothing more than a recipe for keeping US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. “

Announcing his decision, Mr Biden mentioned only briefly the other goals that had been added to the mission over the years and that came to justify the continued US military presence, including providing education for girls and opportunities for women, fostering a sustainable economy and ultimately creating a lever to force the Taliban to negotiate peace.

Everything may have been noble goals, he suggested, but keeping US troops in the country until they were achieved was a formula for a permanent presence after the assassination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“We did justice to bin Laden a decade ago,” he said. “And we’ve been in Afghanistan for a decade since then. Since then, the reasons for our stay in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear. “

Speaking after a meeting with allies in Brussels, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said the withdrawal of NATO troops by 9/11 does not mean the end of the US commitment to Afghanistan, which will include aid and advice to the military and the government.

“Returning our troops home does not mean the end of our relations with Afghanistan,” he said.

If Mr Biden fulfills his vow to eliminate all US troops permanently based in the country by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, he will have achieved the goal that his two immediate predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump has accepted but never completed. However, the holiday will not be easy and the risks are significant.

In a series of briefings for Mr Biden in recent weeks, Pentagon officials have argued for an ongoing modest presence in Afghanistan to gather intelligence and support the still-shaken Afghan force. They also warned that the Taliban could attack US troops and their NATO allies as they left the country.

So Mr Biden issued a warning on Wednesday, saying the United States would “protect itself and our partners with all the tools we have.”

The president’s speech included an explicit reminder of his own, long-held belief that victory in the war was impossible and that no matter how long the Americans remained, the end result would be a little different. In a grim tone, he neither declared victory nor conceded defeat; instead, he withdrew to the original, narrow goal of protecting the interests of the United States and said it had been achieved.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Mr Biden said, noting the courage of the men and women who had fought in the country since 9/11. But he added: “That can’t explain why we should stay there in 2021.”

On October 7, 2001, just weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Bush used the Treaty Hall, where the Spanish-American War was officially ended in 1898, to tell Americans that the United States was invading Afghanistan.

At the time, Mr Bush said that “the only way to pursue peace is to persecute those who threaten it” and he promised that the United States “will not hesitate, will not get tired, will not hesitate and will not to fail. “

Twenty years later, Mr. Biden, speaking from the same room, called the reason “fair,” but said the clarity of Bush’s mission was confused and he said he could no longer accept the argument that more time in Afghanistan will lead to better results for the American people.

White House officials said Mr. Biden had talked to Mr. Obama about his decision, and the president said he had also informed Mr. Bush.

Mr Bush chose not to publicly anticipate Mr Biden’s decision.

“As he has said since leaving office, President Bush will refuse to comment on private phone calls or his successors,” said Freddie Ford, his chief of staff.

A series of Afghan governments have failed to maintain control of vast parts of the country, the essence of the US military’s strategy of “clear, hold, build” for years after the initial invasion. While a series of Afghan leaders, backed by the United States and its allies, have vowed to fight corruption, end the drug scourge and establish a stable government, all of these gains have proved fragile at best.

Women played a more prominent role in government, and girls were educated on a scale never seen before the war. But the future of these gains is in doubt if the Taliban gain more positions.

In a statement on Twitter, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his country “respects the US decision and we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition.” He added that his country’s security forces were “fully capable of defending their people.”

But in private, Mr Ghani has considered the US solution, according to people who have spoken to him. He fears this will encourage the Taliban and give them no incentive to abide by the terms of the agreement reached a year ago with Mr Trump. And many around Mr Ghani fear that his own government, which is already under influence, could fall if the Taliban decides to try to take Kabul, the capital.

“The fact that we are withdrawing from Afghanistan does not mean that the war is over,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior Trump national security official who dealt with Afghanistan. “It’s probably getting worse.”

Mr Biden was the first president to reject the Pentagon’s recommendation that any withdrawal be “conditional”, meaning that security must be guaranteed on the ground before the Americans withdraw. Otherwise, military officials have long argued that it would mean signaling to the Taliban to simply wait for the Americans – after which they would face little opposition to taking further control and perhaps threatening Kabul.

The decision was hailed by many Democrats, but harshly criticized by most Republicans, who predicted that the withdrawal of US troops would increase terrorists and accelerate the collapse of the Afghan government.

Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the decision a “grave mistake” and a “retreat to the enemy.”

But even some architects of the original policy agreed that it was time to go. Douglas Lut, a retired general who directs Afghanistan’s National Security Council policy for Mr Bush and then Mr Obama, wrote to CNN with Charles A. Kupchan on Wednesday that “those who say they should we will stay in Afghanistan to thwart the attacks on the homeland are wrong “because the terrorist threat inside the country has been drastically reduced in the last 20 years”.

In a statement from Brussels, NATO foreign and defense ministers reiterated Mr Biden, announcing that the alliance would also begin withdrawing its own troops from Afghanistan on 1 May. There are currently 6,000 to 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, not counting those from the United States.

A NATO statement said that despite the withdrawal, it would continue to support Afghanistan, its people and institutions in promoting security and maintaining the profits of the past 20 years.

Peter Baker contributed to reporting from Washington and Stephen Erlanger from Brussels.

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