Biden tells Americans ‘we cannot continue the cycle’ in Afghanistan as he announces troop withdrawal

Anne Gearan, Karen DeYoung and Tyler Pager

April 14, 2021 at 3:22 p.m. EDT
President Biden visits Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday.

President Biden formally announced Wednesday that the United States will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, saying in a speech from the White House that more time and more troops have failed to end the conflict and that is now time to close down America’s longest war.

Biden did not declare a military victory. He said instead that a perpetual presence does not serve U.S. interests.

“It is time for American troops to come home,” he said in televised remarks from the Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced that the war in Afghanistan had begun in 2001.

Biden said the United States has long since met its goal of responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, noting that it has been nearly a decade since U.S. commandos killed al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Biden said. “I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”

Biden said he had spoken with Bush in recent days to tell him of the decision.

Each president who has dealt with the war has been given a version of the same rationale for continuing to fight it, Biden said.

“The main argument for staying is what each of my three predecessors have grappled with. No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave,” he said.

More than 2,000 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan in a conflict that cost trillions but often lacked a clear objective.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021. Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that will determine our standing and reach today and into the years to come.”

The president said he understands the argument that the United States would lose leverage over Taliban insurgents by leaving, but said staying had not ended the war or achieved peace.

“We gave that argument a decade,” he said. “Not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan. And not when we’re down to a few thousand. Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way.”

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters on Tuesday that the withdrawal “is not conditions-based.” Biden officials have concluded that when the United States has made its presence in Afghanistan dependent on improvements on the ground, they have failed to materialize.

Biden also thanked American troops and their families for service he said was not in vain.

“We as a nation are forever indebted to them,” Biden said.

Biden said he would follow the speech with a visit to the area of Arlington National Cemetery where dead from Afghanistan and Iraq are buried, and he invoked the example of his son Beau Biden, a reserve officer who served in Iraq and later died from a brain tumor.

Biden’s announcement comes as the United States will miss the May 1 deadline that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban last year for exiting the country. The United States officially has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, but there are about 1,000 additional Special Forces personnel in the country.

NATO and other partners have thousands more stationed in Afghanistan.

Biden said the deal Trump struck with the Taliban isn’t perfect, but said he would substantially abide by it.

The decision to pull troops from the country comes at a perilous time, with military officials warning that a complete departure could lead to more terrorist activity.

Biden addressed those concerns in part by vowing to continue to support the Afghanistan government through diplomatic and humanitarian work.

“We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” the president is expected to say. “Along with our partners, we are training and equipping nearly 300,000 personnel. And they continue to fight valiantly on behalf of their country and defend the Afghan people, at great cost. We will support peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, facilitated by the United Nations.”

Biden’s decision received support from liberal Democrats, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who praised the president for moving to end the prolonged military conflict. But some Republicans quickly attacked Biden, saying the decision was reckless and dangerous.

Biden tells Americans ‘we cannot continue the cycle’ in Afghanistan as he announces troop withdrawal