with Mariana Alfaro

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President Biden’s central gamble on Afghanistan is this: The United States doesn’t need to keep soldiers garrisoned on the ground to prevent that war-torn country from once again becoming a haven for terrorists like al-Qaeda or ISIS.

Biden announced on Wednesday that U.S. and NATO troops will begin to withdraw May 1 and be gone entirely by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that led the United States to dive into the first battle of the so-called “war on terrorism.”

“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,” he said.

The same day, CIA Director William J. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee the withdrawal came with a “significant risk” groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda might try to build up their presence in Afghanistan and again plot attacks on U.S. interests.

“Both al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets, whether it's in the region in the west or ultimately in the homeland,” he said. “After years of sustained counterterrorism pressure, the reality is that neither of them have that capacity today.”

Still, “when the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish, that's simply a fact,” Burns testified at the annual hearing on “Worldwide Threats.”

“But we will work very hard at CIA and with all of our partners to try to provide the kind of strategic warning to others in the U.S. government that enables them and us to address that threat if it starts to materialize,” he promised.

The comments from Burns highlight a potential shortcoming of Biden’s plans and underline the administration is clear-eyed about the problem as articulated by one of its senior intelligence officials and eager to remedy it. Knowing about the dilemma won’t satisfy Biden’s domestic critics, however.

The possibility Afghanistan could return to a pre-9/11 state, with the Taliban Islamist militia in charge and playing host to extremists bent on striking the United States, lies at the heart of the argument for keeping U.S. troops there.

“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 (R-Ky.) “Apparently we’re to help our adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by gift-wrapping the country and handing it back to them.”

Biden’s counter, laid out in remarks from the White House Treaty Room, runs along three broad lines: No U.S. military presence, no matter how lengthy, will ensure Afghanistan is terrorist-free; the United States will continue to help the government in Kabul and pressure the Taliban to suppress extremists; and the United States always reserves the right to defend itself.

At the New York Times, Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper report: “the Pentagon is discussing with allies where to reposition forces, possibly to neighboring Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.”

Schmitt and Cooper's reporting describes a war changing more than it is ending: “Attack planes aboard aircraft carriers and long-range bombers flying from land bases along the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and even in the United States could strike insurgent fighters spotted by armed surveillance drones.”

Biden promised Wednesday “we will not take our eye off the terrorist threat … we will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent re-emergence of the threat to our homeland.”

“We'll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil. The Afghan government has made that commitment to us as well,” Biden said.

Top Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, have said in recent weeks their country can hold the line militarily as long as they have Western financial support.

My colleague John Hudson reports Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced stop in Afghanistan today to meet with Ghani as well as other officials in an effort to reassure them that Washington will remain a partner even if the partnership is changing.

That was after the 30-member NATO alliance unanimously backed Biden’s withdrawal plan, Hudson also reported.

Biden has made another argument: The terrorist threat has evolved has been “metastasizing,” in Biden’s telling well beyond Afghanistan, to places like Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. 

“We'll focus our full attention on the threat we face today,” Biden said, vowing to “monitor and disrupt significant terrorist threats not only in Afghanistan, but anywhere they may arise.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll halt or reverse the troop withdrawal if the situation in Afghanistan veers into chaos, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at her midday briefing on Wednesday.

“He remains committed to the timeline that he intends to set out in the speech.”

Quote of the day

“I thought I’d be happy. It doesn’t feel like a win,” said Peter Lucier, a Marine and Afghanistan veteran, about the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. “It’s just really empty.”

What’s happening now

The Biden administration imposed significant economic sanctions on Russia over cyber spying and efforts to influence the presidential election. “The administration also sanctioned six Russian companies that support Russian spy services’ cyberhacking operations and will expel 10 intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in the United States,” Ellen Nakashima reports. “The package includes sanctions on all debt Russia issues after June 14, barring U.S. financial institutions from buying government bonds directly from the Russian Central Bank, Russian National Wealth Fund and the Ministry of Finance. The action, experts said, will complicate Moscow’s ability to raise money in the international capital markets.” 

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin declined to testify in his own trial in the death of George Floyd, invoking his Fifth Amendment right. The decision came after Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, said the defense would rest its case today. When Judge Peter Cahill confirmed with Chauvin whether it was his decision not to testify, Chauvin said “It is, your honor,” Timothy Bella and Kim Bellware report.

Jobless claims fell to the lowest level since March 2020. Americans filed 576,000 initial jobless claims last week, the Labor Department said. The figure is a 193,000 drop from last week’s surprise spike, Taylor Telford reports, suggesting that recovery is trudging onward even as unemployment remains high. 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • A Post examination found that D.C. police requested backup at least 17 times in 78 minutes during the Capitol riot,” by Dalton Bennett, Shawn Boburg, Sarah Cahlan, Peter Hermann, Meg Kelly, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Elyse Samuels and Brian Monroe: “The Post reviewed police radio communications, synchronized them with hours of footage and drew on testimony and interviews with police supervisors to understand how failures of preparation and planning played out that day. The examination reveals how police were hampered by an insufficient number of officers and shortages of less-lethal weapons and protective equipment and also provides a glimpse into communications breakdowns within the police response.”
  • D.C. Guard misused helicopters in low-flying confrontation with George Floyd protesters, Army concludes,” by Alex Horton: “In an announcement, the Army said one helicopter ‘hovered under 100 feet’ over the heads of people in the nation’s capital on June 1 as D.C. police and federal agencies worked to disperse crowds protesting police brutality. ... Senior officials ... have maintained that the mission was to observe crowds and help police track people’s movements, and they have dismissed assertions that the maneuvers were intended to frighten and scatter protesters on the streets after a curfew had been imposed. But a redacted investigative report released Wednesday appears to contradict those claims.”

… and beyond

  • The U.S. housing market is nearly 4 million homes short of buyer demand,” by the WSJ’s Nicole Friedman: “The figures underscore the severity of the housing deficit, which is a major factor fueling the current red-hot housing market. The shortage is especially acute for entry-level homes, which makes it more expensive for first-time home buyers to enter the market, said Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac.”
  • Biden administration to end USDA food box program,” by the Counter’s H. Claire Brown: “‘We’re going to continue to provide healthy food but we’re going to do it through the most efficient system that we have. The reality is the food box program was set up to respond to Covid. There were a lot of problems with it, a lot of problems,’ said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a congressional hearing. ... Flaws in the program’s implementation became evident almost immediately: USDA chose inexperienced distributors ... to launch the box program. Food pantries soon began complaining that deliveries weren’t arriving, that the produce arrived in poor condition, and that the boxes themselves were falling apart.”
  • Pennsylvania GOP launches ‘super MAGA Trump’ primary,” by Politico’s Holly Otterbein: “The likely GOP candidates in Pennsylvania’s open Senate race come in three familiar flavors: anti-Trump, Trumpy and Trumpiest. Multiple former Trump administration officials are eyeing the Senate seat. One likely contender has close ties to the Trump family that could give him a major leg up in the primary. Behind the scenes, other candidates have fostered relationships with former Trump aides or are working hard to develop them.” 

The first 100 days

Some Democrats are pushing forward on their plans to expand the size the Supreme Court, but the idea is already receiving pushback – from other Democrats. 
  • “Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, are among those expected to appear at a news conference on the Supreme Court steps to tout their plan to increase the number of justices from nine to 13. The move follows Biden an executive order last week creating an independent commission to examine changes that could be made to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary," John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz report.
  • But some Democrats – including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) – are not ready to embrace the move. “I just heard about it. I’m not ready to sign on yet,” Durbin, whose committee will have jurisdiction over the bill, told reporters this morning, per Wagner. Durbin would like to allow time for Biden’s commission to do its work. “Let’s think this through carefully. This is historic,” Durbin said.  
The House will hear for the first time today public testimony from the Capitol Police inspector general on the Jan. 6 attack.
  • The inspector general, Michael Bolton, will speak to the House Administration Committee at 1 p.m. Bolton is leading an investigation into why Capitol Police failed to contain and ultimately were overwhelmed by the mob. He has disclosed his initial findings to lawmakers in two reports, summaries of which were obtained by The Post, Karoun Demirjian reports. The investigation has, so far, revealed an “alarming level of disorganization within the Capitol Police,”
  • In prepared remarks, Bolton will tell lawmakers Capitol Police “must pivot from its reactionary role as a police department to one that works in a protection posture to deal with rising threats to the Capitol,” per NPR.
Biden is resisting raising the Trump-era refugee cap over political optics.
  • “The President's hesitation comes as the administration faces heat from Republicans and Democrats for its handling of an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border. But the situation at the US southern border is separate from the refugee program,” CNN reports. “One Democratic aide described what is unfolding as ‘vintage Biden’ in terms of preserving his options so that he can maintain decision-making space for the one that best suits him politically.” The decision, however, is frustrating Democratic lawmakers and advocates.
Biden is scoring high on the pandemic, low on the Mexican border. 
  • As Biden approaches his 100th day in office, he has a 48 percent approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. His coronavirus response has a 64 percent approval rate among adults, but his work on the migration issues at the Mexican border received only 29 percent of respondents' approval with 55 percent disapproving of it.
  • Biden’s new infrastructure plan has a 44 percent approval rate, but support for it grew to 53 percent if the plan were to be funded by raising taxes on corporations, as the president has proposed.

The pandemic

The U.S. could have 300 million extra vaccine doses by the end of July, raising concerns over hoarding. 
  • “The United States has pledged money to the global immunization effort, but resisted calls to share vaccine technology or donate surplus doses,” Adam Taylor and Emily Rauhala report. “On Thursday, [Secretary  of State] Blinken hosted a fundraising event for Covax, a World Health Organization-backed push to distribute coronavirus vaccines, particularly to low- and middle-income countries, and called on other countries to do more. ... Blinken urged countries to give more ... [and] said countries must support vaccine manufacturing, but stopped short of announcing any specific policies or plans. He did not address the issue of surplus U.S. doses.” 
  • Yesterday, Oxfam, a global, antipoverty organization, “released a letter signed by more than 100 former heads of state and Nobel laureates calling on President Biden to waive intellectual property rules for coronavirus vaccines.” 
The Johnson & Johnson pause has shaken vaccinations worldwide. 
  • “After considering whether to reinstate the vaccine, a panel of expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined on Wednesday that it needed more time to assess a possible link to a rare but serious blood-clotting disorder,” the Times reports.
  • “In South Africa, health officials have stopped giving the Johnson & Johnson shot. ... The European Union said it would not make any more purchases of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or of AstraZeneca’s, which has raised similar concerns. If the perception takes hold that rich countries are dumping second-rate shots on poorer nations, suspicions about the efficacy of the vaccines could harden, slowing the worldwide rollout of desperately needed doses.”
The Olympics could be canceled, Japan's ruling party figure admitted this morning. 
  • “I want the Games to succeed, but to do so there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved,” Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai said during a television interview. “If it seems impossible, it needs to be stopped.”
  • “The remarks were the first public admission by the ruling party that cancellation or postponement were under serious consideration,” Simon Denyer and Julia Mio Inuma report.

Today in history

Abraham Lincoln died on this day in 1865. From the AP's coverage of April 14, 1865, the night of his shooting: “The theatre was densely crowded, and everybody seemed delighted with the scene before them. During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’ and immediately leaped from the box, which was in the second tier, to the stage beneath, and ran across to the opposite side, made his escape amid the bewilderment of the audience from the rear of the theatre, and mounted a horse and fled. The groans of Mrs. Lincoln first disclosed the fact that the President had been shot.” 

Hot on the left

“Biden pledged to stop building the wall. But he just won the right to seize a Texas family’s land for it,” by Teo Armus and Arelis Hernández: “For years, the Cavazos family has battled the federal government for their land in South Texas. ... When Trump pushed to erect ‘a big, beautiful wall,’ the family delayed court proceedings to wait out his plans. But just when they thought they’d won a reprieve, it was Biden — not Trump — who would end up defeating the family. ... A federal judge on Tuesday ruled the federal government had the right to condemn about 6½ acres of Cavazos land through eminent domain. After Biden pledged ‘not another foot’ of border wall would be constructed, it is a breach of faith for dozens of private Texas landowners along the U.S.-Mexico border. ‘We took him at his word,’ one family member” said. “ ‘He is not keeping that word.’ ” 

Hot on the right

“America’s primary elections are screwing up our politics,” writes the Bulwark’s Tyler Fisher: “The current crop of Republican freshmen are not exactly a testimony to democracy. How did we get to a place where people like Representatives Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene win places in Congress? The answer is that they are the products of partisan primaries that tend to elevate the most extreme voices in our politics. ... The problem is that, for a supermajority of Congress, just 10 percent of Americans are actually voting in the election that really decides who goes to Washington. That’s because of both the geographical self sorting of the electorate and the imposition gerrymandering. The combination of these two drivers has resulted in a country where 83 percent of congressional districts in 2020 did not have competitive general election races.” 

All your cicadas questions, visualized

Few creatures we call “bugs” are actually classified as bugs by scientists, but cicadas are true bugs because of the way they eat. They suck food through strawlike beaks called rostrums. Want to know more about cicadas? Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha have added more answers to all your buggiest questions.

Today in Washington

Biden and Vice President Harris will meet with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee today at 2 p.m.

Democrats, led by Markey and Nadler, will introduce legislation today to expand the number of Supreme Court justices. 

More than a dozen senior Biden officials will appear in House hearings today. Biden’s chief medical adviser, Tony Fauci, and Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, will testify before the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis.

Several high-ranking intelligence and law-enforcement officials, including CIA Director Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, will testify during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on “worldwide threats.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge will also appear in House budget hearings today. 

In closing

Seth Meyers, referencing to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, said nothing that goes on for 20 years stays good: