Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden formally announced his plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11th, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
President Joe Biden: I'm now the fourth United States president to preside over American true presence in Afghanistan, two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.
Tanzina: The decision would mark the end of the US's longest ever war and already it has lawmakers split in Washington over what this could mean on the ground in Afghanistan down the line. I'm joined now by Robin Wright, columnist at The New Yorker and Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow. Robin, great to have you back.
Robin Wright: Great to be with you.
Tanzina: The decision here we heard president Biden say he doesn't want to leave a fifth president to deal with this. What do we know was behind that decision? Was it his altruism to not leave this for another president or was it something else?
Robin: Joe Biden has wanted to get out of Afghanistan for more than a decade. He opposed the surge that President Obama had ordered in Afghanistan to try to push the Taliban back. This has been his approach all along, but he also inherited the deal that President Trump made between the United States and the Taliban that pledge that the US would be out on May 1st, so Joe Biden had to make a decision about whether to try to keep troops there a little bit longer while the Afghan government and the Taliban continued to negotiate over a future government or to decide that the United States has given enough time to both parties to work this out. Since there's no military solution, that it was time to hand over to the Afghans themselves.
Tanzina: You mentioned what President Obama's plans were in Afghanistan. Remind us, President Trump also made efforts to end this long war that we've been in. Remind us what his efforts were?
Robin: President Trump tried very hard to bring all American forces back from both the Middle East and South Asia. The deal with the Taliban was the main agreement that come out of this. He also had brought home thousands of troops and ordered-- When you think about what we had at the height of our presence in Afghanistan, over 100,000 forces. When Joe Biden took over, there were only 2,500. Now there are a few more because there's some special forces folks there. It varies a little bit in terms of the total, but we're down to something like 2% of what we had at our peak. The drawdown was already well in force under the Trump administration, and now it will be done, I suspect, long before September 11th, although that's the final date.
Tanzina: Would this apply to all troops? How many troops are still in the country and then does include contractors and other folks, or just specific to troops?
Robin: The United States has somewhere between 2,500, 3,500 troops. NATO has more than 7,000 troops, so it's a much larger force than the United States. Then there are over 20,000 contractors who are vital in sustaining the Afghan military, particularly the air force, which is the one thing the Taliban doesn't have is airpower so the air force for the Afghan government is critical. NATO announced that it too will be drawing down with the United States, pulling out completely. The question really is what happens to the contractors? Will companies, private companies, be willing to continue to deploy? Are there liability issues? Who's going to pay their contracts?
Of course, what role will the United States and its allies play in supporting the government and making sure that the government is capable of just paying its salaries as it is the United States pays a huge percentage of the salaries of the Afghan military and there are indications that it will continue to do so, but that doesn't mean that it's going to beat the Taliban because the Taliban now controls at least 50% of the country.
Tanzina: Robin, what will the withdrawal of troops mean for the Afghan people? How will this affect their lives?
Robin: In enormous ways, I think. Particularly those who feel that the Western intervention led by the United States had helped develop whether it was new universities, a civil society, promote women's rights in education, the workplace, and in government. There will be many people who feel betrayed that the United States is walking away from them. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken arrived in Kabul today and tried to signal that the US is not abandoning Afghanistan as it did after the Soviet withdrawal. People forget that the US spent billions to support militias that fought the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of that, the US was unprepared to provide even a million dollars to help with education. Blinken is trying to signal that the United States will continue to be involved, continue to be an important ally. I'm not sure that will really happen in reality. The focus is increasingly on Asia, particularly China, whether there will be the resources in this critical time in our history with a pandemic and all the obligations at home. It will be a real question whether Afghan gets what Afghans think they deserve. I suspect there will be a brain drain. Many people will want to leave Afghanistan because they fear the return of the Taliban as its government.
Tanzina: There are many different perspectives on this pullout in Washington. What can you tell us, Robin, about how much support there is right now for this effort?
Robin: I think the polls indicate that the American people support the withdrawal of American forces after 20 years. There is a sense that Afghanistan may not ever have been winnable militarily. In terms of Joe Biden's legacy, he will probably be looked at by some is either the president who is finally extricating America from the quagmires in the messy Middle East or messy South Asia. He also may be viewed by historians as the president who opened the way for the Taliban to return to either some major government role or even taking over the government. History may take a different judgment than the American people do today.
Tanzina: What happens next? How do you even begin a process like withdrawal of troops at this level?
Robin: I think one of the things that we have to remember is there's still a peace process that the US is trying to support to get the warring parties together. It was supposed to take place in it in Istanbul later this month. The question is now, will the Taliban even bothered to go knowing that the US is indeed going to leave? Will it feel it has the leverage to just sit it out? In terms of the logistics of withdrawal, the US will begin a phased withdrawal of equipment and men. I suspect by this summer, they will all be out well before September 11th, but that will be the symbolic moment when the US can say, "We're out, the NATO is out. We turn security responsibilities back to the Afghan government."
Tanzina: We've also spent an enormous amount of money on this war. Robin, are those resources and those dollars going to be reallocated towards more defense spending, or do we even know what's going to happen there?
Robin: The United States has spent more than a trillion dollars. It's our longest war and maybe one of our very most expensive. The United States has pledged to continue to aid Afghanistan, but it will be in much smaller amounts. I think the reallocation of resources will focus heavily on other parts of Asia and as the president said in his announcement, on the extremist movements that have proliferated, so it's not just an Afghanistan or the Middle East anymore, it's in North Africa, even Southern Africa, far across as Indonesia in East Asia. The focus will be in developing counter-terrorism forces that can deal with the proliferation of extremist and Jihadi threats around the world.
Tanzina: Robin Wright is a columnist at The New Yorker and Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow. Robin, thanks so much as always for your reporting.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.