US president Joe Biden has declared it was time “to end America’s longest war” as he announced that nearly 10,000 US and Nato troops would return home from Afghanistan in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Addressing the world from the White House, Biden said 2,500 US troops plus a further 7,000 from “Nato allies” including 750 from the UK would gradually leave the country starting on 1 May. “The plan has long been in together, out together,” he added.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result,” Biden said in a late afternoon speech.
Biden said he was the fourth president to preside over the US-led fight against the Taliban. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth,” he said, and added he had told his predecessor, George Bush, who first ordered troops into the country in the aftermath of the terror attack on the Twin Towers, of his decision on Tuesday.
The plan was debated at a Nato summit in Brussels earlier on Wednesday. Member states did not oppose the plans for a full withdrawal once the US has made its intentions clear earlier this week, partly because they cannot guarantee the security of their own forces without the presence of the US.
Minutes after Biden’s confirmation of the withdrawal plan, all Nato members, including the UK, put out a joint statement, confirming they would join in with an “orderly, coordinated, and deliberate” removal of troops alongside the US.
The alliance said that it had achieved a goal to “prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to attack us” but acknowledged also there was no good reason to stay on. “There is no military solution to the challenges Afghanistan faces,” Nato members said.
The UK, which has been present alongside the US for nearly 20 years, had been preparing to withdraw for several weeks, once the new administration had decided on its plans. If they [the Americans] go, we’ll all have to go. That’s the reality of it,” a British defence source said.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, said: “The British public and our Armed Forces community, both serving and veterans, will have lasting memories of our time in Afghanistan. Most importantly we must remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, who will never be forgotten.”
The threat from the Taliban to the US is judged to be at a level where a military presence is no longer required, but many officials, diplomats and analysts believe the hardline group could soon be back in control across the country, and that there could be a resurgence of al-Qaida and Isis in Afghanistan.
William Burns, the CIA director, told the Senate on Wednesday that there was a “significant risk” that the terrorist groups could re-establish themselves and pose a threat to the US and its allies.
“I think we have to be clear-eyed about the reality, looking at the potential terrorism challenge, that both al-Qaida and Isis in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack US targets, whether it’s in the region, in the west or, ultimately, in the homeland,” Burns told the Senate intelligence committee.
“When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That simply a fact,” he added, but he stressed there were actions that US intelligence would take to mitigate the threat and raise the alarm if needed.
Nick Reynolds, a research analyst with the Rusi thinktank, said: “Ultimately, now is not a good time to leave. However, there was never a good time to leave, nor does one seem possible, and Nato was never able to create a window in which good leaving conditions were in prospect.”
More than 2,300 US personnel have been killed and 20,000 wounded in the long-running conflict, which has also claimed the lives of nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians. The Taliban were driven out of Kabul early in the conflict but more recently the security situation for civilians has worsened.
Action on Armed Violence, a research group that monitors deaths in conflict, said in 2020 that Afghanistan had the highest level of civilian casualties harmed by explosive weapons recorded by any country in the world, overtaking Syria. Last year the UN recorded 3,035 civilian deaths in the country.
Britain played a major role in combat operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, leading the fight against the Taliban in the southern Helmand province. A total of 454 British soldiers and civilians were killed on operations during the period, according to the Ministry of Defence.
Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan said they had mixed feelings. Craig Monaghan, 30, a rifleman who was left with a brain injury and deaf in one ear after being hit by an improvised explosive device in 2009, said he still believed the decision to fight the Taliban was correct, even though he and many other veterans he knew had had mental health problems in the years following.
“I have to believe it was worth it, partly because of what we lost. When we took on the Taliban, we took away the fear many local people had. So if you sit and digest it, leaving completely is a bitter pill to swallow. Until a country can provide its own security, can it ever be a good time to go?” he said.
Richard Mitchell, 38, who served on four tours in Afghanistan with the Parachute Regiment, said he did not think the UK would “commit to a campaign on that scale again”. He said: “I think about my mates who lost their lives, the toll on the civilian population, the resources we poured in, and can’t help but conclude it wasn’t worth it. We never had a coherent strategy or a notion of what success would look like.”
The Trump administration had agreed to withdraw all forces by May after striking a peace deal with the Taliban under which the hardline Islamist group was to crack down on al-Qaida, stop attacking international troops, and engage in peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
The election of Biden as president last year prompted a review, but his final decision appears not much different. The previous orthodoxy had been to demand that the Taliban meet certain conditions before US troops withdraw, but on Tuesday it was clear this had changed. A senior US official briefing reporters on the decision said: “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan for ever.”
Barack Obama praised the withdrawal, saying Biden “has made the right decision”.
The former president acknowledged there will be “very difficult challenges and further hardship ahead in Afghanistan”, and he urged the US to remain involved in diplomatic efforts to ensure the human rights of Afghan people.
“But after nearly two decades of putting our troops in harm’s way, it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily, and that it’s time to bring our remaining troops home,” Obama said.
Earlier, Germany, which contributes 1,300 troops to the training and stabilisation mission, indicated before the Nato meeting that it would support withdrawal
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the country’s defence minister, told ARD public television: “We always said, ‘We’ll go in together, we’ll leave together.’ I am for an orderly withdrawal and that is why I assume that we will agree to that today.”
About 36 countries provide troops for Nato’s Resolute Support mission, which largely provides training advice and assistance to Afghanistan’s security forces. Larger contributors include Italy, Georgia, Romania and Turkey, which supply several hundred troops each.
Later on Wednesday, Biden paid a visit to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where service members who died fighting in America’s recent wars, including the war in Afghanistan, are buried.
Asked by a reporter whether it was a difficult decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Biden said it was not.
“To me, it was absolutely clear,” Biden said. “We went for two reasons: get rid of bin Laden and to end the safe haven. I never thought we were there to somehow unify … Afghanistan. It’s never been done.”
Joan E Greve contributed reporting