Biden Sends Dueling Messages on Afghanistan
The administration has sought to reassure Americans that it is ending “forever wars” while signaling to Afghans that the U.S. is not abandoning the beleaguered country.
By Eric Schmitt
WASHINGTON — To listen to the White House and Pentagon, the exit of the last American combat troops from Bagram Air Base is not the end of the mission in Afghanistan. At least that was the signal to the Afghans.
The United States military will still help Afghan forces, just by teleconference from afar. Armed Air Force drones will still hunt Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, just from bases eight hours away in the Persian Gulf. The Biden administration still plans to provide the Afghan government more than $3 billion in security assistance, just with not as much oversight in the country to prevent corruption.
In reality, however, much has changed in the three months since President Biden ordered most of the 3,500 American troops to leave by Sept. 11. There are no more Americans on the ground to advise and assist Afghan troops. Few of the 18,000 Pentagon contractors will remain to repair Afghanistan’s air force and its fleet of American-supplied Black Hawk helicopters. Only two other NATO military allies are staying — Turkey and Britain — and most of their troops will be holed up in fortified embassy compounds or securing Kabul International Airport, that last major gateway out of the country.
Speaking on Friday, Mr. Biden underscored his administration’s dueling messages as it sought to reassure the American public that its so-called forever wars are winding down, at least militarily, while trying to convince beleaguered Afghans that the United States is not abandoning the country at a moment when intelligence analysts assess that the government could fall in as few as six months to a resurgent Taliban.
Asked whether the troop withdrawal he ordered in April was nearly finished, Mr. Biden said that some troops would remain — mainly to secure the United States Embassy in Kabul — but that “we’re on track exactly where we expected to be” on the withdrawal.
Questioned about the risks of the pullout, Mr. Biden said: “Look, we were in that war for 20 years. Twenty years.” He added, “The Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the Air Force they have.”
That was the same message Mr. Biden conveyed to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan during his visit to the White House last week. Pentagon officials said on Friday that a few hundred contractors would stay through August — a couple of months longer than expected — but after that they would troubleshoot maintenance issues from afar or bring aircraft out, as needed, for major repairs in Persian Gulf countries.
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