Reed Floor Statement on President Biden’s Decision to Withdraw All Forces from Afghanistan
REED: President Biden has decided to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
I believe this decision was one of the hardest President Biden will ever make. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius laid out, “Biden’s military and intelligence advisers have presented him with three unpleasant alternatives: leave May 1st as previously agreed, even though this would probably mean the fall of the Kabul government and a return to civil war; stay for a limited period, perhaps negotiated with the Taliban, which would delay its eventual takeover; or stay for an undefined period, which could mean a long continuation of what’s already the United States’ longest war.”
In effect, there were no good choices. The President exercised his best judgement to endorse a path that is most likely to protect the national security interests of the United States.
I believe there were several factors over twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan that shaped the President’s decision.
The most critical miscalculation over the past twenty years was the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq. We took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan at a crucial time and instead pursued a war of choice in Iraq. The attacks by al Qaeda on September 11th galvanized the world. The authorization for the use of military force passed the Senate 98-0, while the French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed, “We are all Americans.” Most notably, for the first time NATO invoked article 5 of its charter, which calls upon its members to take action on behalf of any member nation which is attacked. The world was with us.
But before we could really gain momentum in Afghanistan, the United States diverted to an unnecessary, war of choice in Iraq. As journalist Steve Coll wrote in his definitive history of the war in Afghanistan, “On November 21, 2001, then Central Commander Tommy Franks, who was planning our operations against Tora Bora, took a call from Donald Rumsfeld, who ordered him to start working on the plan for the invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld told him to have something ready within a week.” As a consequence, General Franks’ attention was being forced elsewhere. As journalist Susan Glasser wrote in the Washington Post, in the battle of Tora Bora, “corrupt warlords allowed bin Laden to escape while special forces pleaded with the Pentagon to let them get in the fight.” And as we now know, Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, was not captured for another decade. This decision wasted a period when the Taliban was routed and the Afghan population was welcoming.
More recently, President Biden inherited a flawed agreement from the Trump Administration.
Known as the Doha agreement, it required the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners to withdraw all military forces by May 1, 2021. Non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, and advisors were also required to leave. In effect, the entire international presence that has been the foundation in Afghanistan for almost two decades, would be gone by May 1st. In exchange, the Taliban agreed not to attack the United States or it allies and promised not to allow “other individuals or groups, including al Qaeda to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
The only really verifiable condition of this Trump agreement was that the Taliban would not attack the United States or its allies. The remaining conditions were unenforceable promises and very difficult to certify. As General McKenzie, the Commander of Central Command, testified to the Armed Services Committee just a few weeks after the deal was concluded, “We don’t need to trust them, we don’t need to like them, we don’t need to believe anything they say. We need to observe what they do.”
What we have observed is alarming. While the Taliban may have adhered to one aspect of the deal by not attacking U.S. forces, they have violated the spirit of the agreement as overall violence is on the rise. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction assessed that enemy attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians increased by 50 percent in the third quarter of 2020. Former Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Laurel Miller, described “an uptick in targeted assassinations [which] has sent shock waves through urban areas.” In mid-March, Secretary of Defense Austin noted after meeting with Afghan President Ghani, “it’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country.”
Additionally, a United Nations report from last fall concluded that the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban had not been substantively changed by the February 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the United States. The UN Assessment noted alarmingly that “al Qaeda has been operating covertly in Afghanistan while still maintaining close relations with the Taliban” and that the group is in their words: “quietly gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under their protection.”
Beyond the substance of the agreement, the manner in which it was concluded was also deeply flawed.
To begin with, the Trump Administration concluded a deal with the Taliban, a fundamentalist group using the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Even though the agreement states that the United States does not recognize such a state, it’s very formulation is a propaganda boon for the Taliban. As former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani noted, “Allowing the Taliban to refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate, even in parentheses, allows them to build the narrative that they forced the U.S. to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan just as the mujahideen [fighters] had forced the Soviets out. If the administration is eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, it would have done better to announce a no-deal exit than allowing the Taliban such a huge propaganda victory.”
Additionally, the deal was completed exclusively between the Trump Administration and the Taliban. There was no involvement of the Afghan Government, reversing the long standing position of the United States, which prioritized an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process.” Further, there was no visible involvement of our NATO allies who went into Afghanistan after we were attacked on September 11th, 2001—when article 5 of the NATO charter was invoked for the first time.
As the Afghan Study Group noted, a group led ably by General Dunford and our former colleague, Senator Ayotte, “Our NATO allies in particular have been steadfast in their support and have shared the sacrifice; over a thousand coalition troops have been killed since 2001.” The Trump administration negotiated their exit without their say. There was also no involvement by regional partners despite potentially significant consequences for security in the region. As the Afghan Study Group further noted, “an unstable Afghanistan risks destabilizing the region through continued trade in illicit drugs, the attraction of extremist ideologies and the possible exacerbation of the rivalry between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed powers.” In essence, Trump’s go it alone, rush to the exits mentality, led to a deal where the Taliban emerged as the key benefactor. The United States, its allies and partners, won very little from the Trump deal.
We are approaching twenty years of warfare in Afghanistan, spanning over three different Presidential administrations. Or, perhaps more accurately, one year of warfare repeated twenty times as we rotated troops in and out of Afghanistan.
In addition to the disastrous pivot to Iraq and flawed deal with the Taliban, despite all our efforts over multiple administrations, we have been unable to build an effective fighting force that could defeat the Taliban and hold territory. Afghan soldiers have fought bravely despite continuing pressure and massive casualties, and several components have emerged as particularly capable, such as the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF). But after twenty years, this is not sufficient progress. As the Afghan Study Group assessed, “the ongoing lack of capacity and inefficiency of the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces or] ANDSF limit its strategic options against the Taliban. As a result, the ANDSF is generally on the defensive to provide security for much of the population.” We were never able to change the “checkpoint mentality” of the Afghan forces. Their focus on static positions, as much for appearance as for tactical advantage, still persists today, making them extremely vulnerable to a more agile Taliban.
Moreover, two decades later, the Afghan forces still have no organic logistical capabilities. An assessment by the Department of Defense from last June noted, “all components of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, will… continue to rely over the long term on contracted logistic support, and on the United States for the vast majority of the funding needed to sustain combat operations.”
And as I recall, the agreement that the Trump Administration negotiated requires the withdrawal of all contracted logistical support. As Napoleon once commented: ‘an army moves on its stomach.’ Without logistical capability, without a tactically capable army, with few exceptions, the ability of the government of Afghanistan and military of Afghanistan to resist the Taliban is highly questionable. And indeed, we should be looking seriously ourselves, because for twenty years of efforts and billions of dollars, I would have hoped twenty years ago that we would have seen a credible, decisive, effective Afghan force.
Another crucial factor contributing immensely to the Taliban’s success has been the inability of the United States to eliminate the sanctuary the Taliban was granted in Pakistan. Center for Strategic and International Studies terrorism expert Seth Jones wrote in 2018, “The Taliban[’s]…sanctuary in Pakistan and state support from organizations like [Inter-Services Intelligence or] ISI have been essential to their war effort, and the U.S. failure to undermine this safe haven may be Washington’s most significant mistake” of the war. As the Afghan Study Group notes, these “sanctuaries are essential to the viability of the insurgency.”
Additionally, Pakistan’s ISI aided and abetted the Taliban while opportunistically cooperating with the United States. As Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown assessed in 2018, “Pakistan provided direct military and intelligence aid… resulting in the deaths of U.S. soldiers, Afghan security personnel, and civilians, plus significant destabilization of Afghanistan.” This support to the Taliban runs counter to Pakistani cooperation with the United States, including allowing the use of air space and other infrastructure for which the United States provided significant funding. As the Afghan Study Group noted, “Pakistan has played both sides of the field.”
These dynamics further play out against a complex environment in Pakistan which has implications for the national security of the United States, its allies and partners. Pakistan is simultaneously fragile and armed with nuclear weapons, making its vulnerability particularly dangerous. To add to this toxic mix, Pakistan is in a longstanding struggle with its neighbor and key adversary, India, which is also armed with nuclear weapons. As Seth Jones described,
“Pakistan and India have long been involved in a balance-of-power struggle in South Asia. Both lay claim to the Kashmir region, and have fought three wars over Kashmir since 1947. Afghanistan is not the ultimate objective of either country, but rather an arena for competition in what has long been called the “great game.” While bogged down politically and militarily in daily crises in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States, over multiple administrations, has been unable to focus the necessary attention on Pakistan. Therefore, this problem has only gotten worse.”
Another factor shaping the President’s decision is that the United States and its coalition partners were never able to develop an Afghan government that could gain the confidence of the people—especially beyond the cities—and provide basic services, including in the security, education, health care, and justice sectors. A study by the World Bank in late 2019 found that 55% of Afghans were living below the poverty line, with even basic civilian services underfunded. The lack of the government’s ability to meet such needs erodes the people’s support for the government.
Afghanistan has also been undermined by profound corruption. The Afghan Study Group assessed that corruption has “delegitimized the existing government and created grievances that are exploited by the Taliban to gain support and at times, legitimacy.” Corruption is a national security concern that further erodes the ability of the government to build faith and trust.
Additionally, the leadership of the Afghan government is seen as being removed from the populace. This makes it harder to understand the needs of the people and to govern effectively.
A prime example of this conundrum is the current President Ashraf Ghani. Ghani was reelected after a five month delay in the polling results, and following a long standing dispute with his political rival. While Ghani is a serious scholar and technocrat, who literally wrote a book on fixing failed states, he appears unable to fix his own state. As the New York Times reported just last week, “From most vantage points, Mr. Ghani — well qualified for his job and deeply credentialed, with Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Columbia, the World Bank and the United Nations in his background — is thoroughly isolated. A serious author with a first-class intellect, he is dependent on the counsel of a handful, unwilling to even watch television news, those who know him say, and losing allies fast.”
But even if President Ghani was a strong leader, it would likely not be enough. The instability of the central government, which has been fueled by rival factions seeking power resulting in inconclusive elections, has led to unwieldly power sharing arrangements. Beyond challenges between those political officials and technocrats who want to serve the government and may have competing visons, there is the fundamental tension between those trying to achieve the complex task of governing Afghanistan, and the Taliban who have focused primarily on ejecting foreign forces. There also appears to be a lack of willingness by the government to seriously negotiate with the Taliban, and make tough choices that could obtain a lasting peace deal.
The Afghan government also remains unable to generate revenue to fund its operations. Instead it relies almost solely on foreign contributions. This includes an average of $5 billion in security assistance, along with $3.5 billion in civilian assistance from the United States and international donors. The World Bank assessed in late 2019 that even if there was a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Afghanistan would still need as much as $7 billion a year from foreign sources to sustain its most basic spending.
With all of these complex dynamics at play, it underscores a further, albeit profoundly unsatisfactory conclusion facing the President. The alternative to withdrawal was not the status quo. More U.S. and NATO forces would have been required for self-defense, and especially if there were was another attempt to “surge” forces to degrade the Taliban. It appears the President concluded that more troops might buy more time and casualties— but more time would not create a government that could defeat the Taliban and effectively govern Afghanistan. As the old Afghan saying goes: “you have all the watches; we have all the time.”
It's important the President’s decision should be seen as a transition, not closure. We still have vital security issues in the region.
Afghanistan is not in the rear view mirror. Pakistan his not in the rear view mirror. The region is not in the rear view mirror.
First, there is a high probability that without NATO and U.S. support, the Afghan security forces will degrade and collapse, which will ultimately cause the Afghan government to collapse. The Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban included the departure of all security personnel, logisticians, and contractors -- which means that when the United States leaves— the international presence that is the foundation for Afghan assistance is removed. The Intelligence Community’s annual threat assessment for 2021 noted, “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” And according to the New York Times, American intelligence agencies assessed that if U.S. troops leave before a peace deal is reached between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Afghanistan “could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces.”
We have already seen evidence of this trend even prior to the full withdrawal. The International Crisis Group assessed that “as U.S. force levels have fallen, battlefield dynamics have steadily shifted in the insurgents’ favor.” Similarly, New Yorker journalist Dexter Filkins described, “Since 2001, the main arena of conflict in Afghanistan has been the countryside: the government held the cities, while the Taliban fought to control the villages and the towns, particularly in the south, their heartland. But by early this year, the paradigm had begun to fall apart. The Taliban were entrenched across the north, and their shadow government had begun to creep into the cities.”
Another possibility is that the county could fracture with local warlords controlling different territory. This would further intensify conflict, increase instability, and create second order effects such as the flow of internally displaced persons and refugees. The International Crisis Group noted that the likelihood of fracture increases “if U.S. and other funding declines,” and that it has the possibility of pulling Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers into backing proxies in a multi-sided struggle. The Afghan Study Group warned, “any scenario in which the state collapses as it did in 1992 will make it considerably more difficult for the United States to ensure its fundamental national security interests.”
If the Taliban reestablishes its Emirate in Afghanistan, the likely result is erasing all the progress that was made toward building democracy, and particularly, the rights of women and girls. As Seth Jones wrote in a recent article published by the Combatting Terrorism center at West Point, “The Taliban is in many ways a different organization from the one that governed Afghanistan in the 1990s. Yet most of their leaders are nevertheless committed to an extreme interpretation of Islam that is not shared by many Afghans, an autocratic political system that eschews democracy, and the persistence of relations with terrorist groups like al Qaeda.”
If NATO and the United States depart, another consequence is increasing pressure to limit or end international aid. Afghanistan cannot fund itself and, even under the best case scenario, would require $7 billion from international donors annually. It will be extremely difficult to administer programs and provide aid on the ground without oversight, and that too could very well lead to smaller international donations. Furthermore, the entire budget of the Afghan Ministry of Defense is paid for by international contributions. If soldiers are not getting paid, it would have a profound impact on national security.
Another likely consequence of withdrawal, which has been previously discussed, is the creation of a vacuum that allows the resurgence of terrorists groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS of the Khorasan Province. As the Afghan Study Group also pointed out, these groups are “for now limited by the military presence of the United States and its allies which allows the threat to be monitored and when necessary disrupted, while also enabling Afghan Security Forces to continue to put pressure on these groups.” However, the group warned that “during its deliberations, the Study Group was advised that a complete U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement would allow these groups to gradually rebuild their capabilities in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region such that they might be able to attack the U.S. Homeland within eighteen and thirty-six months.” This timeline is short, alarming, and has direct implications for our national security.
Also, an immediate concern as the United States begins to withdraw is an increase in attacks from Afghan forces against the United States and coalition forces, commonly referred to as “green on blue attacks.”
Finally, we must anticipate a flood of refugees as Afghans flee the chaos. In addition, we must do our part to aid those Afghans who have aided us.
Well, given these facts. Given President Biden’s difficult decision to leave Afghanistan, I believe we must take actions to mitigate some of these threats. The withdrawal of U.S. forces should not mean an end to our counterterrorism efforts. Most importantly, we must ensure that Afghanistan will not be a source of planning, plotting, or projection of terrorist attacks around the globe, including against the homeland.
Instead we must transition to a new type of presence—leaving the country but staying in the region in a meaningful capacity. We must build an anti-terrorist infrastructure on the periphery of Afghanistan. We must continue to direct the proper level of attention, intelligence, and resources to evaluate the evolving terrorist threat in the region. This also includes closer cooperation with our allies and partners.
We must continue to engage regional powers diplomatically. The Biden Administration has already begun to reinvigorate that process. We must use the power of our alliances and particularly those in the region who would endure severe consequences and instability from sharing a border with a failed Afghanistan. Working in cooperation, the United States and its allies and regional partners must a check on potential instability.
President Biden is committed to ensuring this isn’t a forever war. But he has also made it clear he won’t allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorism.
Our mission to protect the homeland remains. Our duty to do so remains.
As we go forward, this is a moment of transition, not closure. This is a moment to do all we can to protect this country and hopefully ensure a stable region.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.