U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit Thursday to Kabul where he told Afghan leaders that while the United States will soon begin withdrawing its remaining troops from the country, it remains committed to Afghanistan.
“The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring,” Blinken said as he met with President Ashraf Ghani and other officials.
The visit came a day after U.S. President Joe Biden announced all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 11 of this year.
“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Ghani said Thursday.
A senior State Department official told reporters that while the United States will no longer have military assets in Afghanistan, it will still be capable of confronting any threat that emerges.
Blinken also spoke Thursday to a group of mostly U.S. soldiers at the American embassy, offering praise for the military’s efforts since the first forces were deployed to the country in 2001.
“What you and your predecessors did over the last 20 years is really extraordinary,” Blinken said.
While at the embassy, Blinken met with half a dozen Afghan civil society members, but made no comments while reporters were present.
Naheed Farid, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament who was part of the session, answered a reporter’s question about Afghanistan’s future by saying, “My views are very pessimistic.”
Biden made his announcement in a televised speech on Wednesday, declaring that "war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking.”
He said the United States can no longer justify staying there two decades after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago," Biden said at the White House. "That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021."
Biden spoke in the Treaty Room, the same place where, on October 7, 2001, then-President George W. Bush announced airstrikes on Afghanistan.
"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 in his remarks. "American troops shouldn't be used as bargaining chips between warring parties in other countries."
The U.S. leader said he is now the fourth president to oversee an American troop presence in Afghanistan — among two Republicans and two Democrats — and vowed to not pass the responsibility on to a fifth.
Biden, announcing the withdrawal would begin May 1, added that the United States would continue its diplomatic and humanitarian work in Afghanistan and "we will continue to support the government of Afghanistan."
The president, amid widespread concern his decision will lead to a wider civil war in Afghanistan, also said Washington and its allies would support training and help equip nearly 300,000 Afghan forces, as well as support peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters.
He also called on countries in the region, especially Pakistan, but also China, India, Russia and Turkey, to do more to support Afghanistan.
The way forward
President Ghani said that he spoke to Biden in the hours prior to the official announcement and his government "respects the U.S. decision and will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition."
On Twitter, Ghani added that Afghanistan's security and defense forces "are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful."
Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful.— Ashraf Ghani (@ashrafghani) April 14, 2021
Following his remarks, Biden headed to Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery, where service members who died in America's most recent wars are buried.
“Look at them all,” the president said amid the rows of headstones.
Asked by a reporter if the withdrawal decision was a hard one to make, Biden replied: “No. To me, it was absolutely clear.”
Biden's decision will keep 3,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline that had been agreed to in a deal Washington negotiated in Doha, Qatar, last year with the Taliban when Donald Trump was U.S. president.
The spokesman for the secretary-general of the United Nations declined on Wednesday to endorse Biden's decision.
"We are not going to comment on military decisions. The U.N.'s focus remains on finding a political accord, on finding an accord that will be good for the people of Afghanistan," said Stephane Dujarric.
The Taliban on Wednesday said it wants all foreign forces out of Afghanistan "on the date specified in the Doha Agreement," and that "if the agreement is adhered to, a pathway to addressing the remaining issues will also be found."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid added on Twitter, "If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those (who) failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable."
News of the U.S troop withdrawal plans had already prompted the Taliban to cancel its participation in a 10-day peace conference between Afghanistan's warring sides later this month in Turkey.
President Biden warned the Taliban that if "they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal."
Meanwhile, a pessimistic U.S. intelligence report predicted that a peace deal is unlikely in the next year and the Taliban — an enemy of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan — will make battlefield gains.
"The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support," said an unclassified version of the report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The U.S. ability to collect intelligence and act on threats will diminish when American troops leave Afghanistan, CIA Director William Burns testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That's simply a fact," said Burns, adding that the United States would, however, retain "a suite of capabilities."
Several prominent senators of the opposition Republican party are assailing Biden's troop withdrawal decision.
"Apparently, we're to help our adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by gift-wrapping the country and handing it back to them," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor early Wednesday.
"I beg you, President Biden, reevaluate this. Don't lock yourself in because things are going to change quickly in Afghanistan for the worse," Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters following Biden’s speech. "This is not going to end well for us."
Biden's decision is winning praise from those who believe the United States is no closer to winning the war today than it was more than a decade ago or would be in the future.
"President Biden has made the right decision in completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan," said former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president. "There will be very difficult challenges and further hardship ahead in Afghanistan, and the U.S. must remain engaged diplomatically and through our development efforts to support the Afghan people, particularly those who have taken extraordinary risks on behalf of human rights."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the "previous approach of maintaining thousands of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan has not led to a resolution, and a new approach is required."
Some analysts view Biden's decision as the best of an array of bad options.
"There's probably no option that significantly reduces the level of violence. There's also probably no option on the table to build the Afghanistan that the United States probably had in mind when they invested more than a trillion dollars in the war," said University of Chicago Assistant Professor Austin Wright, whose research focuses on insurgents and Afghanistan.
Margaret Besheer at the UN, National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, Ayaz Gul in Islamabad, and White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report