Issue Brief: Biden Sets September As Date of U.S. Afghanistan Withdrawal
Security Assistance Monitor, April 2021
A new SAM Issue Brief examines President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 2021, ending two decades of American military presence in the country, but raising concerns about Afghanistan’s prospects for peace.
The September drawdown will mark a turning point in the $90 billion dollar U.S. security sector assistance effort in Afghanistan, with some analysts warning that the abrupt end to the presence of international troops could seriously damage the ability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to sustain themselves and address growing levels of violence across the country.
Despite the scale of the investment in Afghanistan’s security sector, the ANDSF’s performance has lagged behind the ambitions for the force, which remains debilitatingly dependent on foreign support for critical functions, including logistics, sustainment, and ministerial management.
How the departure of U.S. and other NATO troops from the country will impact the security sector assistance effort remains to be seen, but will hold important consequences for the country’s security, intra-Afghan talks, and for broader political developments in Afghanistan.
President Biden has announced that the remaining US ground troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn from the country by September 11 of this year, the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In his announcement, President Biden said “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” adding that “it is time to end the forever war” in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration will proceed with a $23 billion arms sale, including F-35 aircraft and armed drones, to the UAE while it continues its review of pending weapons sales. Activists and lawmakers have expressed concern over the arms deal due to the UAE’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war.
Foreign troops under the command of NATO have agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11 in coordination with the United States. There are currently around 7,000 non-US forces in Afghanistan from primarily NATO countries in addition to Australia, New Zealand, and Georgia. NATO will likely rely on US airlift capabilities and shipping to “move valuable equipment back home out of landlocked Afghanistan” during the withdrawal in order to avoid hardware falling into the hands of militants.
The Norwegian government has signed a revised agreement that will allow the US to “build facilities at three Norwegian airfields and one naval base, but will not amount to separate US bases.” The deal must now be ratified by Norway’s parliament before coming into force.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said that despite the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan before September 11 of this year, the US “will look to continue funding key capabilities, such as the Afghan air force and Special Mission Wing,” adding that the US will “seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan security forces.” Secretary Austin also emphasized that there may still be a US counterterrorism force in the region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Canada has canceled all defense exports to Turkey after an investigation revealed Canadian military technology exported to Turkey was used by Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Last year, the Canadian government suspended the sale of advanced drone optics and defence equipment and launched an investigation into Turkey’s potential violation of end-user licence agreements through the sale of Turkish drones to Azerbaijan.
More than 100 international human rights, faith-based, grassroots, and foreign policy organizations delivered a letter to President Biden urging him to stop U.S. firearms sales to Mexico until effective end user controls are established. The letter references the January 2021 massacre of sixteen Guatemalan and three Mexican migrants in Camargo, Tamaulipas state. Mexican state police officers involved in the massacre belonged to a unit whose members were armed with U.S.-exported assault rifles and received U.S. training.
Although U.S. troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan in September, ongoing security operations and assistance are likely to continue, says SAM Director Lauren Woods in her new article for The Prospect. Moreover, the U.S. military will likely continue to rely on drones, which rarely lead the news, but often cause civilian casualties. “It makes sense then to cautiously await the impending departure of U.S. troops while keeping in mind that the work of a full withdrawal is far from over,” says Woods.
A new Issue Brief from CIP’s Arms & Security Program details conduct from the UAE that should disqualify it from receiving U.S. arms. The Brief notes that the UAE has fueled conflict, transferred U.S.-supplied weapons to extremist groups, and inflicted severe human rights abuses on its own population. “Whatever pledges the UAE may make regarding its use of the U.S. weapons involved in the current package, the UAE’s record does not inspire confidence that it will abide by them,” writes the Program’s Director, William Hartung.
In this CNAS advisory, eight security experts unpack key developments and possible outcomes to watch for on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Of the experts is CNAS CEO Richard Fontaine, who says that Biden’s presidential announcements have “the air of finality”, and marks a stark difference from previous administrations. However, there are many risks to U.S. departure, including the growing presence of al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban. “America’s residual troop presence may be the difference between a government that can hang on and outright Taliban victory. Time will tell.”
Yemen Researcher Afrah Nasser argues that resuming U.S. arms sales to the United Arab Emirates is dangerous to civilians: not only in Yemen, but also in Libya, where the UAE has conducted unlawful strikes and provided military support to abusive local forces. “Resuming arms sales without first ensuring that the UAE is taking meaningful steps towards accountability for previous unlawful attacks just creates a situation in which those violations could happen again, with no one being held responsible. In resuming these arms sales, the US government once again risks complicity in future violations,” writes Nasser.
Arms Sales experts Trevor Thrall and Jordan Cohen argue that the consistent decision to sell both major conventional weapons and firearms to the Philippines is bad for global human rights and U.S. security. “Ending those arms sales would not only lower the prospects of conflict — it would also end American complicity with the violence and abuses of the Duterte regime.”
Data Fact of the Week:
U.S. Troop Levels and Security Assistance in Afghanistan Since 2001
The graphic above illustrates the changes in U.S. troop levels and U.S. security assistance in Afghanistan over time.
The Biden Administration has announced its intent to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 2021, ending over two decades of American military presence in the country.
Click here to read SAM’s full Issue Brief on the development.