Withdrawal of US and Nato military personnel to begin on 1 May
US president Joe Biden has declared it was time “to end America’s longest war” as he announced that nearly 10,000 US and Nato troops would return home in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Addressing the world from the White House, Biden said 2,500 US troops plus a further 7,000 from “Nato allies” including 750 from the UK would gradually leave the country starting on 1 May. “The plan has long been in together, out together,” he added.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result,” Biden said in a late afternoon speech.
Biden said he was the fourth president to preside over the US-led fight against the Taliban. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth,” he said, and added he had told his predecessor, George Bush, who first ordered troops into the country in the aftermath of the terror attack on the Twin Towers, of his decision on Tuesday.
The plan was debated at a Nato summit in Brussels earlier on Wednesday. Member states did not oppose the plans for a full withdrawal once the US has made its intentions clear earlier this week, partly because they cannot guarantee the security of their own forces without the presence of the US.
Minutes after Biden’s confirmation of the withdrawal plan, all Nato members, including the UK, put out a joint statement, confirming they would join in with an “orderly, coordinated, and deliberate” removal of troops alongside the US.
The alliance said that it had achieved a goal to “prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to attack us” but acknowledged also there was no good reason to stay on. “There is no military solution to the challenges Afghanistan faces,” Nato members said.
The UK, which has been present alongside the US for nearly 20 years, had been preparing to withdraw for several weeks, once the new administration had decided on its plans. If they [the Americans] go, we’ll all have to go. That’s the reality of it,” a British defence source said
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, said: “The British public and our Armed Forces community, both serving and veterans, will have lasting memories of our time in Afghanistan. Most importantly we must remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, who will never be forgotten.”
The threat from the Taliban to the US is judged to be at a level where a military presence is no longer required, but many officials, diplomats and analysts believe the hardline group could soon be back in control across the country, and that there could be a resurgence of al-Qaida and Isis in Afghanistan.
William Burns, the CIA director, told the Senate on Wednesday that there was a “significant risk” that the terrorist groups could re-establish themselves and pose a threat to the US and its allies.
“I think we have to be clear-eyed about the reality, looking at the potential terrorism challenge, that both al-Qaida and Isis in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack US targets, whether it’s in the region, in the west or, ultimately, in the homeland,” Burns told the Senate intelligence committee.
“When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That simply a fact,” he added, but he stressed there were actions that US intelligence would take to mitigate the threat and raise the alarm if needed.
Nick Reynolds, a research analyst with the Rusi thinktank, said: “Ultimately, now is not a good time to leave. However, there was never a good time to leave, nor does one seem possible, and Nato was never able to create a window in which good leaving conditions were in prospect.”