During a White House press conference a few weeks ago, President Joe Biden told reporters he couldn't imagine there being U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year. "We will leave," he said. "The question is, when we leave."
The answer was not immediately obvious. On the one hand, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is the longest in our history -- to the point that some of those serving in the military today weren't even born when the conflict began. There's fairly broad support for withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, along with difficult questions about what more our military could possibly do in the country.
On the other hand, withdrawal skeptics continue to argue that once our troops depart, the Taliban will be in a position to reclaim power, returning us to the conditions found 20 years ago.
To that end, Biden ordered a three-month Afghanistan policy review, which has culminated in a dramatic departure from the status quo. NBC News reports:
President Joe Biden will announce Wednesday that the U.S. will fully withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year, a symbolic deadline marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, senior administration officials said Tuesday. The troop drawdown will begin before May 1, the deadline for complete withdraw as outlined in a deal the Trump administration reached with the Taliban, a senior administration official said. The U.S. says there are roughly 2,500 troops currently serving in Afghanistan.
A senior administration official told reporters this morning that the White House's review determined that any national security threat from Afghanistan is "at level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without being at war with the Taliban."
Pressed on the merits of a "conditions-based approach," rather than a withdrawal deadline, the administration official added this morning that as far as the president is concerned, "a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever."
The specifics of the timeline are highly relevant: Biden has been facing a May 1 deadline -- negotiated by the Taliban and the Trump administration -- with the expectation that Taliban forces would escalate attacks on coalition forces unless the White House announced a U.S. exit. Whether they'll be satisfied with the newly announced September withdrawal target remains to be seen.
If this sounds at all familiar, it's because Donald Trump, about a month before Election Day 2020, announced that he was ending the war and bringing all troops home "by Christmas."
The motivation behind the Republican's vow was obvious -- Trump wanted to be known as a president who finished the nation's "endless wars," despite the inconvenient fact that he hadn't ended any wars -- but his announcement was ridiculous. Trump hadn't coordinated the declaration with his own team, and U.S. allies had no idea what the then-president was talking about.
Christmas 2020, we now know, came and went, and thousands of U.S. troops remained in and around Kabul. Biden appears ready to do what his predecessor hoped to do, but didn't.
I mention this recent history because it might complicate the Republican response a bit. Will leading GOP voices endorse the "America First" worldview, celebrate today's news, and suggest Trump deserves credit for the troop withdrawal, or will Republicans reembrace more of a Bush/Cheney vision and demand an indefinite, open-ended war in Afghanistan?