U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday he will withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, declaring that the Sept. 11 attacks "cannot explain" why American forces should still be there 20 years after the deadly assault on the United States.
His plan is to pull out all the American forces — numbering just under 2,500 now — by this Sept. 11, the anniversary of the attacks that were co-ordinated from Afghanistan.
The drawdown would begin, rather than conclude, by May 1, which had been the deadline for full withdrawal under a peace agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban last year.
"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result," said Biden, who delivered his address from the White House Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war in 2001.
"I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.
"It's time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home."
Biden has long been skeptical about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. As Barack Obama's vice-president, Biden was a lonely voice in the administration who advised the 44th president to tilt toward a smaller counterterrorism role in the country while military advisers were urging a troop buildup to counter Taliban gains. Biden has also made clear he wants to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy to face bigger challenges posed by China and Russia.
The lengthy conflict has largely crippled al-Qaeda and led to the death of Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks. However, critics argue withdrawing all U.S. troops comes with risks. It could boost the Taliban's effort to claw back power and undo gains toward democracy and women's rights made over the past two decades.
It also opens Biden to criticism, mostly from Republicans even though former president Donald Trump had also wanted a full withdrawal.
"This administration has decided to abandon U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, which have helped keep radical Islamic terrorism in check," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "And, bizarrely, they have decided to do so by September 11th."
While Biden's decision keeps U.S. forces in Afghanistan four months longer than initially planned, it sets a firm end to two decades of war that killed more than 2,200 U.S. troops, wounded 20,000, and cost as much as $1 trillion US.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he spoke on Wednesday with Biden ahead of the U.S. president's speech.
"The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision, and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition," Ghani said on Twitter.
Biden consulted with allies, military leaders, lawmakers and U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris to help make his decision. He said he also spoke to former president George W. Bush, who was president at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He emphasized that his administration will continue to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and assist international efforts to train the Afghan military.
NATO to follow withdrawal timeline
After his speech, Biden was to visit Arlington National Cemetery to honour those who died in recent American conflicts.
A senior administration official said the September withdrawal date was an absolute deadline that won't be affected by security conditions in Afghanistan.
Canada's combat role in Afghanistan ended in 2011 and shifted to one of training. The last Canadian troops left Afghanistan in March 2014.
Following Biden's announcement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance has agreed to withdraw its roughly 7,000 forces from Afghanistan starting May 1 to match Biden's timeline.
Stoltenberg said the full withdrawal would be completed "in months" but did not mention the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks set as the U.S. deadline by Biden.
"We went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together and we are united in leaving together," he said.
With files from CBC News
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