President Biden says it will be “tough” to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan by May 1 as was agreed to by the Trump administration.
In an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Biden said he was “in the process” now of determining when the forces will leave.
“The fact is that, that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president — the former president — worked out. And so we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government, and that decision’s going to be — it’s in process now,” Biden said.
Former President Donald Trump agreed with the Taliban last year to pull U.S. troops from the country in exchange for commitments on peace talks and other issues. At that time, there were more than 12,000 troops there, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011.
Asked how long U.S. troops could remain in Afghanistan, Biden said, “I don’t think a lot longer,” saying the May 1 deadline “could happen, but it is tough.”
Biden blamed the delay on the delay in the transition process after the election. “The failure to have an orderly transition from the Trump presidency to my presidency… has cost me time and consequences,” he said.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan had warned in December that the lack of cooperation on transition issues with the Trump administration could lead to a delay in the withdrawal.
Afghanistan peace talks
Biden’s comments come a day before Moscow prepares to host a daylong meeting on Afghanistan peace talks. That meeting will include U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and officials from Pakistan, Russia, China, the Taliban and the Afghan government. That meeting is meant to inject momentum into Afghan peace talks, which have sputtered since they began last September.
American officials are also arranging for a conference to be held in Turkey, likely in April. At that conference, they hope the Afghan government and the Taliban will agree on an interim government and a comprehensive cease-fire. The interim government would allow the Taliban to start normalizing their role as a political player in Afghanistan — and not just as an insurgency — and the cease-fire would allow space for Afghan peace negotiators to hammer out the details of a comprehensive peace agreement.
Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan government peace negotiations team, said the slow speed of talks has long made it clear that there could be a delay in the U.S. withdrawal.
“It was visible from Day 1,” Koofi told NPR. “With the slow speed of the negotiations, and less sincerity demonstrated from the Taliban side to come to a political settlement anytime soon, it was obvious.”
Koofi blamed the Taliban for taking months to come to an agreement on basic procedural matters in the Afghan negotiations, such as which school of Islamic law would govern disputes between the negotiators.
She said she believed Biden’s new comments would help put pressure on the Taliban to engage more seriously in negotiations. But a spokesman for the group suggested they would see any delay as the U.S. reneging on the deal that had been made.
In a text message, a Taliban spokesman who goes by the name of Zabihullah Mujahid told NPR that “the withdrawal must be completed by the first of May. If a withdrawal is not completed, then we will make a decision.”
But Andrew Watkins, a senior researcher on Afghanistan from the International Crisis Group, said the Taliban may be bluffing. “I think the Taliban are going to feel obliged, at least at a level of P.R. and public messaging, to disparage this,” Watkins said. “And to, you know, at a minimum, feign outrage.”
He said Taliban reaction would likely depend on how much of Biden’s thinking had already been conveyed by Khalilzad to Taliban negotiators.
A senior Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the government had long been planning for American forces to leave and noted that the overwhelming majority of fighting in Afghanistan was being conducted by national forces.
“Afghan citizens and the state are bearing the brunt of the violence,” he said. While Afghanistan would like to see U.S. troops leave, “certain things can’t be rushed.”
The official said Biden’s comments come after the Taliban had dragged their feet on other conditions of the deal with the United States, including taking six months after the deal was signed to begin peace talks. The official said it was disingenuous “to insist on May 1 as the hard deadline when so many things have been lagging behind schedule.”
Biden’s comments reflect some degree of frustration with the choices left by the former Trump administration, Watkins said.
“There also seems to be a sense among U.S. policymakers that Trump left them with a lose-lose situation,” Watkins told NPR. That, alongside a feeling that “there is the sense of we’ve wasted too much time already. Our time is running out and too many people are dying for this thing to go slowly.”