'Time to end the forever war': Biden to start US troop pullout from Afghanistan on May 1

US President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room of the White House about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
US President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room of the White House about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Joe Biden said on Wednesday (April 14) he will begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan on May 1 to end America's longest war, rejecting calls for US forces to stay to ensure a peaceful resolution to that country's internal conflict.

In a White House speech, Biden set a goal of withdrawing all 2,500 US troops remaining in Afghanistan by Sept 11.

By pulling out without a clear victory, the United States opens itself to criticism that a withdrawal represents a de facto admission of failure for American military strategy.

"It was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives," Biden said, noting that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in 2011 and saying that organisation has been "degraded" in Afghanistan. "And it's time to end the forever war."

Sept 11 is a highly symbolic date, coming 20 years to the day of Al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States that prompted then-president George W. Bush to launch the conflict.

The war has cost the lives of 2,400 American service members and consumed an estimated US$2 trillion (S$2.6 trillion).

US troop numbers in Afghanistan peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011.

The Democratic president had faced a May 1 withdrawal deadline, set by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who tried but failed to pull the troops out before he left office.

Instead, Biden said the final withdrawal would start on May 1 and end by Sept 11.

"I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats," Biden said.

"I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth. It is time to end America's longest war. It is time for American troops to come home," he said.

Meeting Nato officials in Brussels earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said foreign troops under Nato command in Afghanistan will leave the country in coordination with the US withdrawal by Sept 11, after Germany said it would match American plans.

Blinken also spoke by phone with Pakistan's army chief on Wednesday and discussed the peace process, according to a statement from the media wing of Pakistan's military.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Biden and he respected the US decision.

Ghani added that "we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition" and "we will continue to work with our US/Nato partners in the ongoing peace efforts."

There is a summit planned about Afghanistan starting on April 24 in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar.

The Taleban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led forces, said it would not take part in any meetings that would make decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had left the country. Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday called on the United States to adhere to the deal the group reached with Trump's administration.

"If the agreement is committed to, the remaining problems will also be solved," Mujahid wrote on Twitter. "If the agreement is not committed to... the problems will certainly increase."

Biden rejected the idea that US troops could provide the leverage needed for peace, saying: "We gave that argument a decade. It has never proven effective."

"American troops shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries," he said.

'Find a way to coexist'

In Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, officials said they would carry on with peace talks and their forces defending the country.

"Now that there is an announcement on foreign troops withdrawal within several months, we need to find a way to coexist," said Abdullah Abdullah, a top peace official and former presidential candidate.

"We believe that there is no winner in Afghan conflicts and we hope the Taleban realise that too."

US officials can claim to have decimated Al-Qaeda's core leadership in the region years ago, including tracking down and killing the group's leader Osama Bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan in 2011. But ties between the Taleban and Al-Qaeda elements persist and peace and security remain elusive.

Successive US presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, but those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a Taleban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

There is concern over the impact a withdrawal would have on human rights in Afghanistan given the gains, particularly for women and girls, during the past two decades.

"I am worried about my future," said Wida Saghar, a writer and women's rights activist in Kabul. "An unknown future awaits us, when foreign forces leave and the civil war intensifies... then who will think about women's rights? Who will care about us?"