President Joe Biden kept referring to the picture of helicopters evacuating Americans from Saigon during the Vietnam War’s final big combat.
The picture has come to symbolize the humiliating end to a long and unpopular international war in the United States. According to a source close to Biden, the possibility of overseeing a similar fate in Kabul weighed heavily on his mind as he considered how and when to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Biden will officially announce his decision to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan before September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which prompted the US to enter its longest war.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Biden will say in his remarks, scheduled for 2:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” he will say. “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
He will deliver his remarks from the same position in the White House Treaty Room where President George W. Bush declared the start of the war on October 7, 2001, indicating that he sees them as a landmark bookend to the long conflict. After that, he’ll pay a visit to a section of Arlington National Cemetery where many of America’s Afghan war dead are interred.
In his address, Biden will state that American diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan will continue, and that he will support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, he would state unequivocally that the Afghanistan war, which started two decades ago, is coming to an end.
“It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home,” he’ll say.
The deadline set by Biden is final, with no possibility of an extension due to deteriorating conditions on the field. Officials said the President realized after two decades of war that throwing more time and resources at Afghanistan’s problems wouldn’t solve the issue.
“This is not conditions-based,” a senior administration official heavily involved in the deliberations said on Tuesday. “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.”
Some US troops will stay in the country to defend American diplomats, but officials refused to say how many.
Biden deliberated for months before deciding that a war in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 2,300 soldiers and cost more than $2 trillion no longer suited the pressing foreign policy concerns of 2021.
That was also true of Biden’s two most recent predecessors, who both tried to pull out of Afghanistan only to be dragged back in by deteriorating stability and attempts to shore up the regime. Biden, on the other hand, believes that the US and the rest of the world must simply move on.
His foreign policy interests are now focused on Asia, where he wants to compete with China, and Russia, with whom he spoke on Tuesday and suggested a summit.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” Biden will say, according to his speech excerpts. “Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that will determine our standing and reach today and into the years to come.”
Even so, the possibility of the Taliban regaining control and potentially reversing advances in stability, democracy, and women’s rights offered a stark counter-argument to an immediate US withdrawal as Biden was making his decision.
Even though Biden repeatedly stated that a May 1 deadline was near-impossible to reach, deliberations took longer than some US officials predicted. Officials wanted to avoid manipulating a President who is notorious for missing deadlines in order to give him time to make an educated final decision that he would not regret. An extraordinarily high number of high-level meetings were held.
The lengthy timeline was viewed by officials involved in the process as a symbol of Biden’s genuine anxiety about a way forward, according to sources. Meanwhile, Biden made it clear that he did not want to be hurried.
In fact, Biden has been thinking about this problem for almost as long as the war itself, having traveled to the area as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as an internal advocate for troop reductions during the Obama administration, despite being initially ignored.
Biden appeared on CNN from his home in Wilmington a few hours after Bush addressed the country from the Treaty Room in 2001. Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden told Larry King that he believed the Taliban would be defeated quickly.