President Biden’s pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 prompted immediate backlash Tuesday from leading congressional Republicans, who decried his plans as “outrageous,” “dumber than dirt” and “a disaster in the making.”
The GOP’s wholesale rejection of Biden’s planned withdrawal illustrates the political risk confronting the new administration as it seeks to bring the country’s longest war to a close — even as many Democrats greeted the news with relief.
“It took us 10 years to find and kill Osama bin Laden. We stayed an additional 10 years to help train Afghan security forces and create conditions for a more stable future in that country,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a leading advocate for repealing the 2001 war authorization that permitted U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. “It is now time to bring our troops home.”
Lawmakers have sparred over the war in Afghanistan since the Obama presidency, perennially debating whether to force the commander in chief to pull back from hostilities that have morphed dramatically since the 9/11 attacks. Those opposed to continued military engagement, most of them Democrats, have repeatedly butted heads with those who believe that removing troops from Afghanistan is dangerous, most of them Republicans.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan was one of the few subjects on which GOP leaders were willing to publicly criticize President Donald Trump, who in his waning months in office set a May 1 deadline to remove all troops from the country. Though Biden’s projected withdrawal will miss that deadline, the additional weeks of deployment have done little to convince Republican leaders that the eventual exit will be handled any more wisely.
“It is insane to withdraw at this time given the conditions that exist on the ground in Afghanistan,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), noting that he also thought Trump’s deadline was “very bad, ill-conceived policy.”
“A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous,” he added. “President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11.”
Though Democrats defended Biden’s decision, the threat of continued terrorist activity from Afghanistan nonetheless muted the reactions of many who head up the national security committees.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that the United States would “have to maintain a presence” in the area “for regional stability” and continued counterterrorism activities.
“This should be seen as transitional, rather than closure,” he said, calling it a “very difficult decision by the president.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sounded a note of circumspection as he processed news of Biden’s decision.
“We don’t have enough troops there to change the tide and make a difference. . . . I understand all of that thinking,” he said. “I just am concerned that after so much blood and national treasure, that we don’t lose what we were seeking to achieve.”
But liberal Democrats are adamant that a sustained war posture is unnecessary — and even detrimental — to long-term security in the country.
“Our continued military presence will not deliver political stability to the country, and the Afghan people must decide their own future,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “We don’t need a permanent U.S. military footprint in the country to effectively combat terrorism.”
Lawmakers like Murphy advocate a shift toward prioritizing diplomatic engagement and trying to “normalize” military relations with Afghanistan. But what that looks like in practice is unclear.
The United States is facing critical challenges with several of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including managing the stability of a nuclear Pakistan and making good on a promise to reengage in nuclear talks with Iran, which announced Tuesday it would begin enriching uranium to unprecedented levels, following an attack on one of its main production facilities.
On Tuesday, Kaine, Murphy and a number of other Democrats sent Biden a letter urging him to “reset” relations with Iran based on a “compliance for compliance” approach, rejoin the nuclear agreement struck during the Obama administration and lift sanctions on Tehran as required under the pact.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence simultaneously released an annual threat assessment, which stated that the Iranian regime “probably will be reluctant to engage diplomatically in talks with the United States in the near term without sanctions or humanitarian relief or the United States rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”