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Early last year, the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban on a timetable for a complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war. President Biden, like his two predecessors, has said he hopes to end the war in that country. But with the May 1 deadline for withdrawal rapidly approaching, it's unclear whether Biden intends to honor the agreement.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Within weeks, American forces had successfully disrupted al-Qaida operations and toppled the Taliban regime that had harbored the terrorist group. But the U.S. has maintained a presence in the country for nearly two decades, as efforts to establish a stable Afghan government have mostly failed. More than 2,300 American service members have died fighting in Afghanistan. The war has also taken an enormous toll on the Afghan people. More than 100,000 civilians have been killed or injured in the conflict since the United Nations began tracking those figures in 2009.
As part of the deal reached last year, the Taliban agreed to block terrorist groups from planning attacks in its territory and to reduce conflict while pursuing a permanent peace deal with the Afghan government. During the past year, however, the U.N. has documented a sharp rise in Taliban-led violence and found that the group has maintained close ties with al-Qaida. Despite the Taliban’s lack of compliance, the Trump administration continued to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan last year. There are currently about 3,500 American troops in the country, down from 13,000 when the deal was signed.
Why there’s debate
The current situation in Afghanistan has led to calls for Biden to reconsider the plan to withdraw troops by the beginning of May. Many fear that a U.S. exit would quickly lead to a full-scale civil war. If the Taliban won the war and regained control, which experts say is the most likely result, two decades of progress from American efforts to stamp out terror and promote human rights in the country would be lost, some argue. A number of lawmakers from both parties have called for an extension of the deadline for at least six months to create more time for peace talks and show the Taliban that its refusal to abide by the agreement won’t be tolerated.
Advocates for keeping the commitment argue that the U.S. has nothing to gain from extending the “forever war” any longer. After nearly 20 years of American involvement, Afghanistan is no closer to stability than it was in the aftermath of the invasion, they say. Some fear that reneging on the agreement would make U.S. and allied troops targets for Taliban attacks. Others say the U.S. can still accomplish its No. 1 objective — preventing terror attacks against Americans — without having troops on the ground.
Biden has said it will be “tough” to complete the logistical steps needed to withdraw all troops from the country by May 1, but hasn’t indicated whether that means he’ll ask for an extension on the deadline. U.S. officials are continuing their attempts to help broker a long-term peace deal between the Aghan government and the Taliban, though it’s unclear whether much progress — if any — has been made.
No progress has been made in the country for well over a decade
“Beset by political instability, rampant corruption, feeble institutions unable to deliver necessary services and an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade and international aid, Afghanistan is no closer to a stable national government than it was 15 years ago. If the government can’t gain the support of the Afghan people, even a superpower cannot prop it up.” — Retired Army Col. John Fairlamb, The Hill
If the U.S. doesn’t leave now, it may never get the chance
“As the fourth commander in chief to oversee the longest war in American history, Biden should reject the status quo as a viable option and stick to the deadline. Any extension invites permanent commitment and undermines the peace process by sending problematic signals to the corrupt Afghan government and the Taliban.” — Nate Anderson, Fox News
The U.S. can combat terror in Afghanistan without boots on the ground
“Like other weak and poorly governed states, [Afghanistan] could attract violent extremists. This is a real concern but not an impossible one to overcome: Mr. Biden will need to maintain diplomatic ties and intelligence capabilities to thwart groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.” — Mark Hannah, New York Times
There is little hope that staying will change the ultimate outcome
“Can a credible case be made that maintaining a small U.S. troop presence will achieve America’s goals in the region, despite the failure of years of large deployments to do so? In the absence of a convincing answer, it is time to bring the United States’ longest war to a close.” — Sarah Kreps and Douglas Kriner, Foreign Affairs
The current agreement presents the best chance for preventing civil war
“U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will never be smooth, but keeping this deal is the best foreseeable option. It stands the greatest chance of retaining some degree of Taliban cooperation.” — Bonnie Kristian, USA Today
Leaving would result in suffering on an unimaginable scale
“As difficult as it is to remain in this longest war, the most likely outcome of pulling out of Afghanistan would be very ugly, including ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country.” — Madiha Afzal and Michael O'Hanlon, Washington Post
The threat of terrorism would return if the U.S. withdraws
“A May withdrawal might lead to renewed civil war and, ultimately, a resurgence of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups based in Afghanistan.” — Editorial, Bloomberg
Extending the timeline could create space for a more stable withdrawal
“After 19 years and more than 2,400 dead, we have no responsibility to continue propping up a government that can’t be made to work. But there’s still a moral argument for trying to leave the right way — for doing what we can to avoid needless chaos on the way out the door. Six months is not forever. It might just be enough time to give peace negotiations a chance.” — Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times
Scrambling to withdraw on a tight timeline is the worst possible exit strategy
“There is no easy exit from Afghanistan, but the worst would be a rushed retreat by May 1 that would serve only the Taliban and its jihadist allies.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
There are no good options for the U.S. in Afghanistan
“Everyone knows what will happen in Afghanistan. We’ll leave and the Taliban will devour the national government, or we’ll stay and wait to see if they start shooting at us again, as we continue winning hearts and minds and minting stars for generals there.” — Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review
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