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Opinion Why did Biden want the Afghanistan withdrawal tied to the 20th anniversary of 9/11?

President Biden at the White House on Aug. 22. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the minor mysteries about President Biden’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan is why he wanted it timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The connection was explicitly asserted as the U.S. departure was announced. Biden “has reached the conclusion that the United States will complete its drawdown and will remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11th,” a senior administration official said.

This deadline was intended to be symbolic. But what was it supposed to symbolize that the United States was abandoning the Afghan people to likely Taliban rule just as we commemorate the nearly 3,000 lives taken by Taliban-sheltered terrorism? Why would a U.S. president choose our day of national mourning to be a day of Taliban celebration?

For the Taliban, the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (assuming it happens by then) will have an obvious symbolic meaning: that the Taliban’s patience, faithfulness and resilience were more powerful than the full force of an infidel empire. This reputation will doubtlessly be useful in recruiting new supporters, intimidating opponents and consolidating power. And Taliban leaders may well point out that the United States is withdrawing in confusion after fewer U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan over 20 years than the number of lives al-Qaeda took on a single September morning.

But what is the message Biden intended for the American people? Clearly, he hoped to emphasize that a revamped approach to fighting global terrorism is now in place. The era of occupation and nation-building is over. The United States will now strike at threats from afar. In Biden’s initial speech of explanation for the blundered evacuation, he said: “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”

It seems that Biden wanted to use the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to declare a fundamental rethinking of counterterrorism strategy. But there is a problem with this explanation.

The president has yet to demonstrate how the retreat of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would actually aid his new approach. Even when the military is striking from over the horizon, human intelligence is vital to targeting. Without people on the ground, it is much harder to cultivate informants and tribal leaders in seeking out terrorist threats. And it is far more difficult to follow threats along the Pakistan border.

“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw,” CIA Director William J. Burns said in April, “the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact.”

Will it really improve the effectiveness and nimbleness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts to lose a forward presence in South Asia? Will U.S. airstrikes be more successful when they are launched a world away in the Persian Gulf?

“For countries in South Asia — particularly India — the withdrawal of U.S. forces, collapse of the Afghan military and ascendance of the Taliban pose a massive counterterrorism threat,” the scholars Kabir Taneja and Mohammed Sinan Siyech argue. “Transnational groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as their affiliates and regional branches, will likely step up their activities from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. … All of this will have immense implications for the future of jihadism in South Asia and beyond.”

So it is difficult for Biden to use the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to argue that the retreat from Afghanistan will result in improved security for Americans. And the questions remain: Why did he tie the two events together at all? Why does he want a day of solemn remembrance to be marked as a deadline for U.S. retreat?

Even if Biden turns out to be right — even if Afghanistan fades into a failed state rather than reemerging as a terrorist bed-and-breakfast — his decision to abandon Afghanistan is one of the most brutal acts of foreign policy cynicism in U.S. history. We know exactly what is going to happen to the women and girls of Afghanistan — what indignities, cruelties and violence will be visited upon them. We know that Taliban rule is a tyranny over body, mind and soul. For the Taliban to change its conduct, it would need to change its theology. And I have seen no signs of a Taliban reformation.

If Biden’s action is a necessity, it is a shameful necessity. If it is required by our interests, they are selfish and pitiless interests. Support it or not, Biden’s ruthless realism deserves to be buried on some forgotten day, not associated with the compassion, courage and selflessness shown by Americans on 9/11.