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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Biden's Afghanistan pullout delay rings politically acceptable, for now

Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, center, commander of

Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, center, commander of the U.S. Central Command, in January 2020 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: AP/Lolita Baldor

President Joe Biden's promise of an Afghanistan withdrawal by Sept. 11 works politically, and symbolically, for the moment.

Biden was scheduled to explain the decision in remarks to Americans on Wednesday, the White House said Tuesday. The new date will mark 20 years since al-Qaida’s 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., which drew American troops in pursuit. Keeping forces in our longest war more than five months longer seems to seal its fate as a "forever" war, against the wishes of most Americans.

If the administration and the U.S. armed forces meet the new deadline, it would complete predecessor Donald Trump’s final push to quit Afghanistan. Trump last had declared May 1 as a final pullout date.

Biden's invocation of Sept. 11 prods the memory of a largely forgotten piece of bizarre Trump symbolism. In 2019, Trump announced retroactively that he’d planned to host the Taliban at Camp David for secret talks the week of 9/11 that year, but militant atrocities kiboshed the arrangement.

Even now, the governmental status quo in Afghanistan looks far from stable. In that nation's cities, factions including the central government, the Taliban, separate militias and criminal networks are lethally slugging it out. For a long time, most violence was in the countryside.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been trying to rally support for a cease-fire and peace settlement as a prelude to withdrawal. On Monday, the Taliban said it was not willing to attend a summit in Turkey intended for this week, but said they could at a later date. "Our discussions about whether to take part or not and when we can take part, are underway," a Taliban spokesman said opaquely.

By last week, it looked as if a delay in pulling out the remaining 2,500 troops was inevitable. Continuing to support the Afghan military risks Taliban backlash.

Neither support nor opposition to withdrawal without conditions fits neatly into party lines.

"Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake. It is retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished and abdication of American leadership," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Tuesday he was "glad the troops are coming home," and that a permanent American presence in hostile terrain is unnecessary.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and other Democratic women in Congress expressed concern the withdrawal would give fundamentalists the upper hand in Afghanistan and sacrifice gains made over the years by women there.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a supportive statement: "Year after year, military leaders told Congress and the American people that we were finally turning the corner in Afghanistan, but ultimately we were only turning in a vicious circle."