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As Biden visits Pentagon, Topic A is Plan B for Afghanistan

When President Biden visits the Pentagon today, his public comments will be upbeat, thanking the building’s civilian and uniformed workforce for the job they do keeping the public safe and marking Black History Month by highlighting the significance of having the first black secretary of defense in history leading the department.

“As the first president in 40 years with a child who served in the military, he has a personal connection to the important role of the military, the men and women who serve,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “Over 40% of active-duty forces are men and women of color, and you will hear President Biden pay special tribute to the rich history of black service members.”
But when Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet privately with Secretary Lloyd Austin, his newly confirmed deputy Kathleen Hicks, Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and the rest of the Joint Chiefs, the most urgent agenda item will be what to do about the looming deadline to pull all remaining troops out of Afghanistan in less than 12 weeks.

The decision is not just about whether the U.S. stays, leaving a force of 2,500 troops in the country to hunt al Qaeda and ISIS-K terrorists, but also whether NATO’s 5,000 troops advising and assisting Afghan security forces will stay too. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has made it clear that NATO went in with the U.S., and it will go out with the U.S.
With twice as many troops in the country, NATO and other partner nations need time to plan for an orderly withdrawal if the U.S. is really going to leave in less than three months. NATO defense ministers will convene by videoconference one week from today, and they will be anxiously listening for guidance from Austin.
Since the Feb. 29 withdrawal agreement negotiated by the previous administration, the Taliban have met one condition. They have refrained from attacks on U.S. and other foreign troops that are part of the NATO Resolute Support mission.
In fact, it’s been one year since any American troops have died in combat in Afghanistan. The last deaths occurred Feb. 8, 2020, when two soldiers were killed in an operation with Afghan forces in Nangarhar Province.
The Taliban say if the U.S. doesn’t withdraw as promised, it will again face Taliban attacks.

The big problem is that the Taliban have not been holding up their part of the deal, which requires them to lower the level of violence and negotiate a power sharing agreement with the Afghan government in good faith.
“Thus far, the Taliban has been, to put it politely, reticent to their requirements,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby two weeks ago. “I would say this to the leaders of the Taliban. They make it that much more difficult for final decisions to be made about force presence by their reticence to commit to reasonable, sustainable, and credible negotiations at the table.”
The congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by previous Joint Chiefs Chairman retired Gen. Joseph Dunford, has recommended the U.S. pursue “an immediate diplomatic effort” to extend the May withdrawal deadline, warning that leaving now could result in all-out civil war with a resulting loss of hard fought gains in human rights, education, and health, especially for Afghan women.
“The February 2020 Doha agreement and the subsequent troop reductions clearly demonstrated that the United States is prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan,” the report said. ‘It should not, however, simply hand a victory to the Taliban.”


Jamie McIntyre

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