Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on Afghanistan
12:04 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. And thanks for joining us on short notice. Today’s call on Afghanistan will be attributable to a senior administration official, and the contents will be embargoed until the conclusion of this call.
With that, I’ll turn it over to our speaker, [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everyone, and thank you for joining today. I am here to talk to you about the President’s decision on the way forward in Afghanistan.
After a rigorous policy review, President Biden has decided to draw down the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan and finally end the U.S. war there after 20 years. We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1st and plan to have all U.S. troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The President is deeply grateful for the honor, courage, and determination of the U.S. men and women who have served in Afghanistan for almost two decades, as well as the sacrifices made not just by those troops, but also by their families.
We went to Afghanistan to deliver justice to those who attacked us on September 11th and to disrupt terrorists seeking to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to attack the United States. We believe we achieved that objective some years ago. We judge the threat against the homeland now emanating from Afghanistan to be at a level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban.
The President made the determination and is announcing tomorrow that the best path forward to advance American interests is to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years so that we can address the global threat picture as it exists today, not as it was two decades ago.
We’ve long known that military force would not solve Afghanistan’s internal political challenges, would not end Afghanistan’s internal conflict. And so we are ending our military operations while we focus our efforts on supporting, diplomatically, the ongoing peace process.
Just a few points of context on all of this. When we came into office, the Biden administration inherited a number of things: the lowest number of U.S. and partner forces since the early days of the war; an agreement between the United States and the Taliban to draw down all U.S. troops by May 1, just three months after Inauguration Day; as well as a military stalemate between the Taliban and Afghan forces.
President Biden asked for a review of genuine, realistic options to advance and protect U.S. interests, and a review that would not and did not sugarcoat the likely outcomes or rely on best-case scenarios.
The President and his team consulted with his Cabinet, members of Congress, the Afghan government, NATO Allies, partners who are still serving alongside the United States in Afghanistan, as well as other donor nations, regional powers, and former officials from both parties here in the United States.
What emerged was a clear-eyed assessment of the best path forward. We have, as I said before, long known that there is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process. And that means putting the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But what we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process.
We will coordinate with NATO Allies and partners about a drawdown of their forces in the same timeframe: beginning before May 1, ending before the 20th anniversary of September 11th. And we have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on U.S. troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response.
At this point, we have discussed the drawdown with our NATO Allies and operational partners. We will remain in lockstep with them as we undergo this operation. We went in together, adjusted together, and now we will prepare to leave together.
We are deeply grateful for the sacrifices so many of them made along the way, and we’ll never forget the ultimate show of Allied support when NATO invoked Article 5 on September 12, 2001, after our country was attacked.
So President Biden was adamant that a hasty, ill-coordinated withdrawal that puts at risk our forces or those of our Allies and operational partners was not a viable option, which is how he landed where we are.
The United States is going to remain deeply engaged with the government of Afghanistan, committed to the Afghan people who have made extraordinary services — excuse me, extraordinary sacrifices during this conflict. We’ll stand behind the diplomatic process, and we will use our full toolkit to ensure the future that the Afghan people are seeking has the best chance of coming about.
We will also look to work with other countries using diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian tools to protect the gains made by Afghan women.
And we will encourage any future government in Afghanistan to expand resources for refugees and internally displaced peoples while also working with Congress to expand and expedite Special Immigrant Visas for those Afghans and their families who supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
Finally, we are not taking our eye off of the terrorist threat or signs of al Qaeda’s resurgence. They do not currently present an external — or do not currently possess an external plotting capability that can threaten the homeland. But this is something that we have to focus on: its potential for reemerging in the years ahead. And we have to continue relentlessly to work to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base from which terrorists can attack the United States.
So, in coordination with our Afghan partners and with other allies, we will reposition our counterterrorism capabilities, retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat to the homeland from Afghanistan, and to hold the Taliban to its commitment to ensure al Qaeda does not once again threaten the United States or our interests or our allies. And we will refine our counterterrorism strategy to monitor and disrupt terrorist threats to the homeland and to our interests in a way that contends with the dispersed threats big picture we face today.
I want to finish on this point: This is not 2001; it is 2021. And in 2021, the terrorist threat that we face is real and it emanates from a number of countries — indeed a number of continents — from Yemen, from Syria, from Somalia, from other parts of Africa. And we have to focus on those aspects of a dispersed and distributed terrorist threat, even as we keep our eye on the ball to prevent the reemergence of a significant terrorist threat from Afghanistan through these repositioned counterterrorism capabilities.
Final point. The President deeply believes that in contending with the threats and challenges of 2021, as opposed to those of 2001, we need to be focusing our energy, our resources, our personnel, our — the time of our foreign policy and national security leadership on those threats and challenges that are most acute for the United States: on the challenge of competition with China, on the challenge presented by the current pandemic and future pandemics, on the challenge posed by this much more distributed terrorist threat across multiple countries. And that doing that requires us to close the book on a 20-year conflict in Afghanistan and move forward with clear eyes and an effective strategy to protect and defend America’s national security interests.
So, I will stop there and would be happy to take some questions.
Q Thanks so much, [senior administration official] and team, for setting this up. First question is: I wonder what you’d base your assessment that al Qaeda does not currently possess an external plotting capability and what level of confidence you and the intel community have with that assessment?
And just as a related question: Given the experience of the withdrawal from Iraq, and the subsequent rise of ISIS, what lesson — of course, you have a number of folks from the current administration who were veterans of that decision, the aftermath — what lessons did you learn from that? And how does that inform this decision or contribute to any hesitancy to withdraw from Afghanistan? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I will — I’ll let the intelligence community speak to the basis for their current assessment, which is, as I noted, a current assessment. I think you, rightly, raised the question of the potential for the reemergence of al Qaeda in the region, following a drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces. That is a genuine threat. It needs to be met with vigilance, and it will be.
And a lesson that we learned from the drawdown in Iraq is that we have to have the intelligence and military capabilities positioned in the region and the attention of our national security apparatus sufficiently focused to ensure that if the al Qaeda external plotting threat begins to reemerge, we deal with it. And we deal with it both directly and by holding the Taliban accountable through all the tools at our disposal for doing their part to keep their commitment, which, you know, we’re not just going to take on faith that they will do.
So that is our intention, and we think we can do that in a way that applies and allocates sufficient resources to that threat, while also staying focused on the terrorist threat as it has emerged and evolved in multiple other countries where al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s capabilities have advanced considerably since we first went into Afghanistan in 2001.
Q Hi. Thanks for doing this. Just to clarify: Is September 11th a conditions-based target for withdrawal, or is it a hard commitment to get to zero? When I spoke to then-candidate Biden in February, at the time he was clear that he did feel some residual U.S. force was necessary in Afghanistan. Are you committing today to going to zero?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. This is not conditions-based. The President has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.
And so he has reached the conclusion that United States will complete its drawdown, will remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11th. And I would hasten to note, for those on the call, that a lot of this is about operational and logistical issues related to ensuring that we have a safe and orderly withdrawal.
That withdrawal may be completed well in advance of September 11th. But that is the outside date by which it will be completed. And, as I said, it will begin before May 1. It will be completed over the course of that next period and no later than the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but potentially a meaningful amount of time before then.
Q Hi there. Can you tell me what, if any, U.S. personnel will remain in the country lastingly? Will there be any counterterror force based there? Will there be any training — keep open the military base there, for example?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The remaining military presence in Afghanistan will be the force required to protect our diplomatic presence. We obviously put the safety and security of our personnel overseas at the top of our priority list. And we are in the process of extensive planning, as well as consultations with our allies and partners on the shape and nature of that ongoing diplomatic presence to ensure that our diplomats in Afghanistan have what they need to fulfill their important and enduring mission.
Q Thank you. I’d like to go back to the timeline. One of the criticisms of the previous administration was that a May 1st deadline was arbitrary. I’d like to know why a September one isn’t arbitrary, given that, practically speaking, you could withdraw well before that.
And what concerns do you have about increased violence against U.S. troops in that period? One of the threats from the Taliban had been that, had the troops stayed beyond out May 1st, there could be potential violence against them.
I guess what I’m trying to clarify: Is the September deadline because helping NATO troops get out? Is it because U.S. troops could get out far faster than that? And what security measures would be in place for U.S. forces in that period when the Taliban has threatened increased violence? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer is — the answer is “yes” to the question about NATO forces. Basically, President Biden has — will give our military commanders the time and space they need to conduct a safe and orderly withdrawal, not just of U.S. forces but of allied forces, as well, on the principle of “in together, out together.” And so, we will take the time we need to execute that, and no more time than that.
We believe that we certainly can complete that before September. And the question of “how long before September” depends on, you know, conditions as the — as the drawdown unfolds.
So that’s why I said there’s not — there’s not actually a date on the calendar for when we can guarantee you the last trip will be out, other than, you know, an outside — you know, it will be no later than the 20th anniversary of 9/11, meaning it could be, as I said before, well before then.
So it’s not arbitrary; it is what is required, in the judgment of our military commanders, to get not just U.S. forces safely drawn down, but to get our partners and allies safely drawn down as well.
We have communicated to the Taliban in no uncertain terms that if they do conduct attacks against U.S. or allied forces as we carry out this drawdown — which, again, as I indicated, will begin before May 1 — that we will hit back hard and that we will hold them accountable for that. And so, we believe we can execute this in an effective way and intend to do so.
Q Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on what [senior administration official] said about ensuring women’s rights. I’m just wondering how you’re expecting to do that if the Taliban has greater control, and if the U.S. would consider returning if women’s rights aren’t protected or, more broadly, if some of the other concerns that you mentioned, like the possible reemergence of al Qaeda or other terror networks in the region, would result in the U.S. redeploying troops to Afghanistan.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We believe that we retain substantial military and intelligence capabilities to disrupt the broader capacity of al Qaeda to successfully reconstitute the sustained homeland threat to the United States. And we will exercise those capabilities, again, both directly and by holding the Taliban accountable with all the tools at our disposal for ensuring that Afghanistan is not a base for attacks against the West.
And then, with respect to protecting women’s rights, the United States, as I mentioned in my opening comments, will use its full diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic toolkit to try to — as best we can — to protect the gains made by women and girls over the course of the past 20 years. We’re committed to supporting our Afghan partners. We’ll do so with an eye towards accountability. We will bolster support for civilian, economic, and humanitarian assistance programs.
Part of the drawdown and the time that we have to execute the drawdown will help us ramp up humanitarian assistance and support for Afghan civil society.
I would note that a lot has changed in two decades. In 2001, there were fewer than 900,000 children, almost all boys, in school. Today, there’s over 9.2 million children, 40 percent of which are girls, in school. Life expectancy has gone from 44 years to 60 years. Maternal mortality rates remain far too high but have declined dramatically.
So, you know, we have made really substantial investments over two decades. And we will do all we can, working with the international community, to protect those gains but not with the continuation of a military force on the ground.
The last thing I would say on this is: We’re going to make clear to any nation, any government, any party that wants to participate in a government that if they want international legitimacy or connection to the rest of the world and does not want to be deemed a “pariah state,” then they must not interfere with the progress that has been made to advance human rights, including for women, girls, and minorities in Afghanistan. So we will — we will work at that.
But our view is that that has to be done through aggressive diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic measures, not through the continuation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Q Hi. Thanks very much for doing this. When — where are you going to be repositioning these American troops? And also, it sounds like you are keeping the American Embassy in Afghanistan open then. Have you decided or judged how — what kind of military presence you need there to protect the diplomats, since some officials estimate that it would be close to the same number as we have now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The — so, first, the question of where these forces will be repositioned to, I’m going to refer to the Pentagon. They will be giving a fuller briefing on this — not probably in the next 48 or 72 hours, but as we move forward. So I can’t speak to that, in this context, now.
On the question of the embassy presence: We are actively working through that contingency planning right now, including what will be required to protect the embassy. We are also in consultation with the Afghan government on that question. And we’ll have more to say on that as we come to a firmer understanding, over the course of our drawdown, of what precisely will be required.
So we have not completed — or we have not reached our final conclusion, despite an immense amount of analysis over the last three years, of what the footprint will look like. We have a range of options, and we will tailor those options to the conditions as the drawdown unfolds.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All right, thanks everyone. That concludes our call this afternoon.
A reminder that we are on background, attributed to a “senior administration official.” With that, the embargo is lifted. Thanks, everyone, and have a good day.
12:27 P.M. EDT