With President Joe Biden expected to soon blow past a planned deadline to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Americans should nevertheless trust Biden to fulfill his pledge to end the 20-year intervention.
Biden has “consistently over the course of the last decade spoken out about his concerns about the war, and that has consistently been his view, even back when he was vice president and it wasn’t aligned with everybody else in the administration, so that should hopefully give people confidence about his commitments,” Psaki told HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard at a White House press conference. She did not, however, clarify Biden’s actual timeline for drawing down the U.S. troop presence there.
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also repeatedly criticized the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan ― but both ended their presidencies with thousands of American troops still in the country. In the coming days, Biden is likely to announce that the 3,500-strong deployment will continue beyond a May 1 timeline for their departure negotiated under Trump.
“The president … has conveyed that it would be difficult operationally to meet the timeline of getting all troops out by May 1,” Psaki said.
Progressive lawmakers and anti-war activists worry that if Biden begins his presidency by continuing the current policy instead of quickly bringing troops home, he will ultimately fail to change course. Hawks could be emboldened and become more assertive in attacking plans for a withdrawal, and U.S. diplomacy with the Taliban ― the hard-line Afghan militants whom Washington has been fighting since it toppled their regime in 2001 ― could falter, increasing attacks against Americans.
Some administration officials privately argue the opposite: that maintaining the U.S. presence for a few additional months is the only way to keep the country from spiraling out of control after the withdrawal, as it could pressure the Taliban to cut a power-sharing deal with pro-American Afghans. Many outside national security analysts believe it’s that hope ― rather than the operational concerns Psaki and Biden have cited ― that has Biden leaning toward the delay.
Some of the president’s advisers also believe he should not feel bound by the Trump-era agreement with the Taliban, which established May 1, 2021, as the U.S. withdrawal date in exchange for a pause on Taliban offensives against Americans. “It was not a deadline that we set,” Psaki said.
Advocates for pulling out the U.S. forces and skeptics of a drawdown are intensely lobbying Biden’s team and Congress in hopes of influencing the president’s final decision.
Serving under Obama, Biden did push against efforts to send more forces to the country, and he has criticized ambitious Washington plans to stay deeply involved in Afghanistan, acknowledging evidence that many U.S. development efforts have failed.
Still, Biden has consistently supported the idea of some continued American involvement in Afghanistan ― a policy he says could keep the country from again becoming a safe haven for terror groups as it was for al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion. Human rights groups and some foreign policy experts believe that simply treating the country as a site of counterterror operations would destabilize it even further, potentially implicating the U.S. in more civilian deaths and prolonging decades of fighting between various Afghan factions.
Psaki did not indicate when Biden plans to make his announcement on the May 1 deadline or if his plans depend on whether American officials can convince the Taliban to agree to such an extension and preserve their halt on targeting Americans.
“It’s … an important decision, one he needs to make in close consultation with allies and with our national security team here in this administration, and we want to give him time to do that,” she said.
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