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Biden Says Withdrawing U.S. Forces From Afghanistan by May Deadline Is ‘Tough’

President Biden said it would be “tough” to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, publicly indicating for the first time that he could extend the American troop presence there.

Mr. Biden, in an interview with ABC News that aired on Wednesday, said he was consulting with allies on the pace and scope of the drawdown, and added that if the deadline were to be extended, it would not be by “a lot longer.”

The United States has about 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan than the 2,500 it has disclosed, The New York Times reported on Sunday. That has further complicated the current debate at the White House over whether to abide by a deal, struck last year by the Trump administration and the Taliban, that calls for removing the remaining American forces by May 1.

Mr. Biden’s own inclination, when he was President Barack Obama’s vice president, was toward a minimal U.S. presence, mainly to conduct counterterrorism missions. But as president, he must weigh whether following such instincts would run too great a risk of the Taliban overwhelming government forces and taking over Afghanistan’s key cities. Many senior American commanders and intelligence analysts still argue that a full withdrawal may lead to Al Qaeda and other groups hostile to the United States seizing wide swaths of the country.

Mr. Biden, like his predecessor, has promised to end the nearly 20-year conflict and withdraw the 3,500 or so American troops in the country — down from about 12,000 troops a year ago. The Trump deal last February caught some American allies by surprise, as the roughly 7,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan rely on the United States for logistics and security support.

If the United States does indeed try to leave by May 1, it will be almost impossible logistically to withdraw both the American and the allied forces on time, American commanders and independent analysts have said, though U.S. officials insist it remains an option.

“That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president worked out,” Mr. Biden said in the interview with “Good Morning America” that took place on Tuesday. “We’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government, and that decision is in process now.”

Mr. Biden said it would be difficult for all service members to leave by May 1. “It could happen,” he said, “but it is tough.”

A spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, Emily Horne, declined to comment further on Wednesday. Other administration officials emphasized that Mr. Biden had not made any final decisions.

Some of the administration’s staunchest allies also voiced doubts on Wednesday about meeting the May 1 deadline for a complete U.S. withdrawal.

“It’s important we get this right, and that we again keep our eyes on the strategic goal rather than work to one or another deadlines,” Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, said on Wednesday in an interview with the Aspen Security Forum.

“The risk is we end up back there in 10 years’ time if we don’t make sure that we leave on a sustainable basis,” Mr. Raab said.

Even top lawmakers in Mr. Biden’s party are warning against withdrawing all U.S. forces by May 1. “To pull out within several months now is a very challenging and destabilizing effort,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who leads the Armed Services Committee, said last month. Mr. Reed recommended seeking an extension of the deadline.

Mr. Biden is keenly aware of the risks of a total security collapse transpiring in Kabul, the Afghan capital, if all Western troops leave, and he has privately described a fall-of-Saigon scenario as haunting, aides said.

But the president also questions whether the small remaining contingent of Americans can accomplish anything after 20 years during which almost 800,000 U.S. troops have deployed, or whether it will ever be possible to bring them home.

The administration appears to be making a major diplomatic push before confronting the stark decision on American troop levels.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken sent a blunt letter to Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, earlier reported by the Afghan outlet TOLO News, that proposed several steps to revive the stalled peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The letter, which asked the Afghan leader to “understand the urgency of my tone,” was received by Mr. Ghani as a personal slight, suggesting that he was one of the main obstacles to the process, said an Afghan official with direct knowledge of the matter.

Mr. Blinken’s letter also signaled continued high-level support for Zalmay Khalilzad, the longtime lead U.S. diplomat involved in the peace process, who is a divisive figure in Kabul. Many in Mr. Ghani’s circle have resented the pressure that the Afghan-born Mr. Khalilzad put on the government over contentious issues, including the release of roughly 5,000 Taliban prisoners, during the lead-up to the talks in Doha, Qatar, which began in September.

Seeking to kick-start those lagging talks, Mr. Blinken proposed in his letter that the Taliban and Afghan leadership meet next month in Turkey, where they were likely to discuss a cease-fire and power-sharing proposal outlined by American officials. Neither side has agreed to the deal.

Mr. Blinken also pushed for a meeting of foreign ministers from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the United States, hosted by the United Nations, to discuss Afghanistan in the near future. And Moscow will host a conference on the peace process in the coming weeks that the Afghan government has agreed to attend.

In addition, Mr. Khalilzad, who is in Doha, continues to meet with the Taliban in an effort to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and he is exploring other ways the Taliban can engage Afghans and the international community in pursuit of a political solution, according to U.S. officials.

Extending the May 1 deadline to pursue these diplomatic goals, without the Taliban’s agreement, carries steep risks.

The Taliban have threatened to resume attacks against American and other Atlantic alliance forces if the United States unilaterally decides to keep its forces beyond the May deadline. American troops are now hunkered down in about a dozen bases and perform two main missions: counterterrorism operations and advising Afghan security forces at various headquarters.

[Source: By Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, 17Mar21]

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