WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s lack of a final decision on the future status of US troops in Afghanistan just three weeks before their full withdrawal deadline has started to frustrate some military officials, current and former senior US officials say.
“There has to be a decision,” said a senior army officer.
A former senior official described Biden as “hesitant” and said the opinion of military leaders is increasingly “just tell us what we’re doing here”.
Meeting the May 1 deadline and, if not, how to proceed with a war that began 20 years ago this fall, are among the first high-stakes foreign policy decisions Biden has faced since his arrival. in power.
His apparent indecision over Afghanistan has raised questions about what he portends for future foreign policy decisions, officials said, especially given his extensive knowledge of the dynamics of this issue and its key players.
At the same time, administration officials say Biden approached the issue methodically, delving into the issue as he inherited it – with a May 1 opt-out deadline – and how that has changed. since he was in office as vice president, personally overseeing a detail and a long process with the various government agencies and intervening American allies.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that Biden, who will announce his decision by the end of the month, continues to consult with his national security team on the matter and “wants to take the time to Make the right decision”. She and other officials also note that Biden said it would be “difficult” to completely withdraw all troops by May 1, while guaranteeing there will be an extension.
Current and former officials have said any frustration among Pentagon officials over Biden’s lack of decision does not include Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin “has not expressed any concerns” about the pace of decision-making on the matter, a senior administration official said.
“The secretary is very comfortable with the opportunity he has had to contribute to the inter-agency review process and the decision-making process regarding our future in Afghanistan,” the Pentagon press secretary said, John Kirby.
The White House has chosen to delay a final decision on troop withdrawal primarily to give more time for a diplomatic push from Washington, in the hopes that the Taliban and the Afghan government can come to an agreement on a sharing deal. power and an eventual ceasefire that would put the United States on a path of withdrawal and an end to the war, administration officials said.
The administration is betting it can use the uncertainty over the troop exit as leverage to persuade the Taliban to compromise and strike a deal that would pave the way for longer-term peace talks, officials said. .
“The idea is to try and see what leverage could be achieved by not announcing when US troops would withdraw, to try and get things done diplomatically,” a senior administration official said. . “Because once you set the release date, that’s it. You have no cards to play.”
In defending the delay on the troops’ decision, administration officials argue that the White House inherited a deal that essentially locked Biden away, leaving him with a difficult set of choices on Afghanistan, and that a time Valuable was lost due to a flawed transfer with the outgoing Trump administration after the November election. Trump administration officials at the time dismissed accusations that they had not fully cooperated with the new Biden team in the Pentagon.
Some Republicans in Congress have expressed concern that the president has already exhausted the leverage at his disposal by saying recently that he is not considering US troops in Afghanistan next year.
Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it made no sense to withdraw US troops on the basis of what he called “an arbitrary timetable.”
“We need to ensure that any US withdrawal from Afghanistan is based on conditions on the ground – not an arbitrary timetable – and that a residual force is maintained for the foreseeable future,” McCaul told NBC News in a report. E-mail. “An eleventh hour withdrawal will only endanger US troops and jeopardize the ongoing peace negotiations.”
It is recognized that the war is essentially over for the United States and that there is little appetite in Washington for unlimited military engagement in Afghanistan, defense officials have said.
NBC News reported on March 18 that Biden was considering a six-month extension of US troops in Afghanistan after May 1, that the Pentagon had presented him with several options and that “the decision is up to the president,” according to a person familiar with the matter. .
The president has had multiple discussions with his national security team on the issue and has pushed back against the idea of keeping US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely – a post he held for more than a decade and promoted when he was. vice-president. Indeed, the current number of troops the United States says it has in Afghanistan, around 2,500, is about the same size that Biden has long argued to stay there.
Administration officials argue that Biden took less time on his review of Afghanistan policy than former President Obama during his first year in office, although the number of troops was much higher by then , and will implement a more coherent policy than its predecessor, the former president. Asset.
Regardless of his decision, officials said Biden should support continued US funding for Afghan security forces and allow the Pentagon to continue training local forces. The United States is also expected to maintain some military officials at the Kabul embassy, as Washington does with other embassies.
Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said last month that Afghan security forces could “defend” against the Taliban even if American troops leave, as long as Washington continues to help fund the country’s military. .
Since 2014, the United States has provided about 75% of the estimated $ 5-6 billion per year needed to fund the Afghan security forces, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The May 1 deadline is part of a deal between the Taliban and the United States that was negotiated by the Trump administration and signed last year in Doha, Qatar. As part of the deal, the United States pledged to withdraw all of its troops by May in return for the Taliban’s agreement to begin peace talks with its adversaries in the Afghan government and a pledge to ensure that Afghanistan is not used as a starting ground for terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies.
U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has been embroiled in a wave of diplomacy in recent weeks and is currently in Doha for talks with the Taliban and Afghan government officials in the Qatari capital, said a spokesperson for the State Department.
The US diplomatic effort aims to lay the groundwork for an international conference in Turkey this month.
“We encourage the parties to engage with each other and discuss ways to speed up the peace process and achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” the department spokesman said. from state to NBC News.
But so far, the Taliban have shown no signs that they are ready to strike a power-sharing deal in which they can play a role in an interim government, and insurgents have warned the United States and the United States. NATO countries to leave by May 1 or face a backlash. “
The Taliban on Wednesday claimed responsibility for an attack on Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan, where US and coalition troops are stationed. Until recently, the Taliban had refrained from targeting US and coalition forces since signing the Doha deal last year, but insurgents appear to have shifted their stance as the deadline approaches. May 1.
The Pentagon told reporters that there were no casualties and that initial assessments indicated that the mortar shells or rockets did not land inside the perimeter of the airfield.