After Almost Two Decades Of War, Biden To Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden says that U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021. The president said in an address Wednesday that after nearly two decades of conflict, there was no reason to continue to wait for an ideal time to leave.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving, and Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

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After Almost Two Decades Of War, Biden To Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan

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After Almost Two Decades Of War, Biden To Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan

After Almost Two Decades Of War, Biden To Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan

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  • Transcript

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey there. Ron Elving here. And before we start this episode, I want to invite you to an NPR Politics virtual live show happening on April 28. The theme is Biden's first 100 days in office. But this is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST After Dark, and that means we'll talk about the news, of course, but you should also come prepared for Q&A, Can't Let It Go and maybe even a trivia round where we test your political knowledge. So you can head to nprpresents.org to get your tickets. That's nprpresents - all one word - .org. See you there.

RAPHAELA: This is Raphaela (ph) in Houston, Texas. And I'm about to start the two-day drive to California to start my dream job as an archaeologist working on an archaeological dig. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:54 p.m. on Wednesday, April 14.

RAPHAELA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will probably still be driving through Texas.

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AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: That's awesome.

KEITH: Oh, my gosh. I want to know more about the dig.

RASCOE: Yeah, I'm thinking "Jurassic Park," but I know that's just like - I shouldn't be thinking that because it's not, like, 1995.

KEITH: Yeah. Or maybe they're excavating the '80s or something.

RASCOE: (Laughter) They could be at this point.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

KEITH: President Biden has just finished a speech where he announced that he will withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, which will be the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel, with our diplomats and our development experts, with the Congress and the vice president, as well as with Mr. Ghani and many others around the world, I've concluded that it's time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home.

KEITH: Ayesha, was this announcement a surprise? I mean, not that it happened today, but that he has made this decision?

RASCOE: No, he had been signaling and saying that, you know, he wanted to get out of Afghanistan. And, of course, I'm sure we're going to talk more about the fact that he's not the first president to say this. And there was this kind of forced deadline because the former administration, the Trump administration, had reached this deal that U.S. troops would be out by May 1. And so he was going to have to make some sort of decision on that.

KEITH: What's notable here in part is that there are no conditions being set on this withdrawal. There is no, like, hey, we'll have the scenario just right and then we'll leave. It's a date certain.

ELVING: That's right. And President Biden said that if you were going to set more conditions, you would have to answer a series of questions about just what those conditions would be, how they would be determined to have been achieved and so on. It's basically the same trap that we've been in for a number of years in Afghanistan.

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BIDEN: 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. I'm now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan - two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.

KEITH: President Biden really is the fourth president to be dealing with this particular war. As he said in his speech, Osama bin Laden was killed a decade ago, the mastermind behind 9/11 who was in Afghanistan, who plotted the attack on America from Afghanistan. U.S. troops have been there just such a long time. It is like the forever war.

ELVING: Indeed. And if you go back 20 years to when it began in the fall of 2001, at that time, Joe Biden was not just another senator. He was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he was all for the Afghan war. A little later on, he supported the authorization for the Iraq War too. That's another story. But by the end of that decade, he was the vice president under President Obama. And there was a big debate in the Obama administration as to what to do with Afghanistan. They eventually decided to surge and Biden was against that.

Biden had decided by then that the United States was overcommitted and that it was time to start drawing down. Now, of course, some of this had to do with the deployment of his own son into the wars of that time, the war on terrorism. And he was concerned about that. But he also was reluctant about the mission that did take out Osama bin Laden. It's been reported that he was against that in the highest levels of those meetings just before that strike was made. So he has been back-and-forth. And he has gone with his gut a number of times. And this is his kind of final call with respect to Afghanistan. He sees it as over and done for the United States.

RASCOE: And in that way, with him saying he, you know, it's time to end this forever war, there is a similarity, we have to say, with, you know, former President Trump. Trump came in and said he was going to end all of these wars. He did not succeed in his first term, but this was what he was saying, that the cost had been too high. How long are we going to stay in Afghanistan and have our resources over there? That - you know, this is kind of a throughline from both administrations?

KEITH: I have to say, I feel like I remember. And it's a little hazy because it's been a lot of years. But I feel like I remember covering President Obama announcing that the U.S. was pulling out of Afghanistan.

RASCOE: There was a general consensus within the Obama administration, even in its first term, that it was time for the United States to begin to draw down its commitment in Afghanistan after bin Laden had been eliminated. Really, the sort of emotional edge of that commitment was gone. And so for a period of the rest of his presidency, President Obama was saying the United States was getting out, was getting out, but always in that sort of future progressive tense.

KEITH: And, Ayesha, you were on a call with administration officials yesterday. What did they say, if anything, about how the U.S. will continue to forward its interests in Afghanistan even without a troop presence?

RASCOE: Well, they're talking about, you know, getting more international support. They say that they are going to make sure that they are prepared, have, you know, the ability to, you know, if they need to respond to something that's happening,

RASCOE: that they will be able to do that to continue to gather intelligence, to make sure something like the, you know, Islamic State, something like that is not, you know, cropping up or some other group. And so that's what they say that they are going to be attempting to do, so keeping their eye on the situation, but not actually being permanently there.

KEITH: All right. Well, Ron, thank you so much for spending a little time with the pod. We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we'll talk about the national security landscape in the wake of this decision.

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KEITH: And we're back. And Ryan Lucas has joined us. Hello, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

RASCOE: So we are going to talk about a hearing that you were covering today on global threats facing the United States. But first, Ayesha, I just wanted to check in with you. What has the reaction been to the president's announcement, sort of the political reaction?

RASCOE: Well, Republicans have, you know, come out against the decision. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a grave mistake and said it's a retreat in the face of an enemy. You know, this is the one area where, even when it came to former President Trump, that you did see some Republicans in Congress push back when it came to trying to withdraw troops. And so you - so it's not surprising to see that criticism from Republicans.

But there have been some Democrats also who have raised some concerns, including Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who said that this shouldn't be an arbitrary deadline and that with all that servicemembers have sacrificed, that, you know, the administration must make sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists. So there is some division even within the Democratic Party.

KEITH: All right. Well, Ryan, let's turn to that hearing that you've been covering today. Did the troop withdrawal come up at that hearing?

LUCAS: It most definitely did. I wouldn't say that it was the main subject of the hearing, but it did come up. There was a really interesting exchange in which Republican Senator Susan Collins asked CIA Director Bill Burns what the implication of a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be on U.S. interests. Burns gave a really interesting answer, and he said that the U.S. has to be clear-eyed when looking at the reality and the potential in Afghanistan going forward. He said if the U.S. withdraws, certainly it's going to be harder to collect intelligence on potential terrorist threats. It's going to be harder to take action when there is intelligence on threats.

But he said that both al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which have presences in Afghanistan, do not pose the sort of threat to the U.S. homeland that they did 20 years ago. Neither has the capacity to really hit the U.S. like they did. Bottom line, he said that certainly there is a risk when the U.S. military withdraws, but that the national security establishment in the U.S. and the CIA in particular will work hard to try to ensure that they have all the information that they need to ensure that the sort of terrorist threat that we saw on September 11, 2001, does not happen again.

KEITH: So in terms of this hearing, if Afghanistan wasn't the focus, then what are the threats that have emerged over the past 20 years that are now, you know, up at the top?

LUCAS: There are four main threats that the leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies talked about today. And No. 1., by a large margin, is China. U.S. officials have been saying for years that China wants to replace the U.S. as the preeminent power in the world. They can challenge the U.S. economically, militarily, and also importantly, technology wise. This is a major concern of the U.S. national security establishment, the ability of the Chinese to compete in next-generation technology like 5G, like artificial intelligence. This is something that the U.S. has not seen from the Soviet Union, for example, in its great power conflict during the Cold War. There are a number of other countries, Russia being another major adversary, not quite on the same level as China, but still one that is a significant threat to the U.S., and then Iran and North Korea being kind of more regional powers, but ones that certainly demand time and attention and resources from the U.S. going forward.

RASCOE: So, Ryan, when you say threats, is the idea now that there is less of a threat from the type of al-Qaida, 9/11 terrorism and the threat is more, you know, from these, you know, other rising powers or, you know, kind of malevolent state actors? Is that the idea? I mean, are we worried that China is going to attack the U.S. or is it just a threat to the U.S. dominance?

LUCAS: It's not a concern that China is going to attack the U.S., no, not at this point. This is very much about kind of threats to U.S. interests.

RASCOE: OK.

LUCAS: And that's more of what this is. And it is important to point out - I'm glad that you brought up terrorism - yes, leaving Afghanistan is kind of closing the book on this whole post-9/11 world that we've been living in for the past 20 years. And interestingly, in the global threat assessment, there was a line in there, and we heard it from the intelligence chiefs today, that ISIS and al-Qaida still do pose a threat, but they are not the preeminent threat to the U.S. homeland in terms of terrorism at this point in time.

Interestingly, they say that it's really domestic actors. It's people already in the United States who are inspired by, you know, anti-government extremist views or white supremacist views, neo-Nazi views and also jihadist ideology. It's people like that already in the U.S. who may act independently who pose the greatest terrorist threat in the United States.

KEITH: We're going to leave the pod there for now. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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