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White House Will Withdraw U.S. Troops From Afghanistan By Sept. 11

NOEL KING, HOST:

This country's longest war, 20 years, will be coming to an end soon - or so we expect. Later today President Biden will announce plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year. There are around 3,500 U.S. troops currently in the country. With me now is Laurel Miller, a former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. Good morning, Ms. Miller.

LAUREL MILLER: Good morning.

KING: We can't say we haven't heard this before. President Obama backtracked on withdrawing troops. President Trump reduced troop levels, but he did leave some forces there. What, if anything, makes this time different, do you think?

MILLER: Well, I'll say those past experiences you referenced, my attitude at the time was, I'll believe it when I see it. I think there were reasons to expect those promises not to materialize. But this time it does seem to be real. A couple of reasons - one, there's been a lead up to this that - a lot of signaling by the administration and by President Biden himself that he would conclude the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

And secondly, as this decision was previewed yesterday, U.S. officials made clear that it was not going to be a conditions-based withdrawal; it was going to be a withdrawal on a specific timeline. And I think that's a very clear signal that they are intending to pull out, regardless of what happens over the next few months.

KING: President Biden is taking some criticism, which you would expect, from some lawmakers in Congress, from some retired military officials. Now, some of that is maybe partisan. But are there critiques that you think are valid?

MILLER: Look; there are risks for the United States both ways, and no matter what he decided at this point, there would be criticisms. The difficulty is that the risks for the U.S. of pulling out and the risks of staying are very difficult to measure, both in the likelihood and in the magnitude of the risk, including the most important risk that some opponents of a pullout point to, which is the risk that terrorist groups could, once again, find comfortable safe haven in Afghanistan. That is quite speculative. And in these circumstances, with uncertain risks on both sides, it really does come down to a judgment call. There is no certain right or wrong answer here.

KING: Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman told us this morning the Biden administration says, look; we will have U.S. troops watching Afghanistan very closely from elsewhere. You talked about the risk that the country becomes a haven again for terrorist groups. Is there anything, really, that the U.S. can do to make sure that doesn't happen?

MILLER: Well, there are capabilities that the U.S. can maintain outside of Afghanistan. The key question, I think, is going to be intelligence gathering. Are they going to have the ability to know that new threats are emerging if and when they do? I think there are ways to mitigate for that. Nothing's going to be perfect here, just as it isn't perfect other areas of the world where there are risks of terrorism. But I think there are ways to mitigate for the risks, and I expect the administration to explore those and to put those in place. And I think that it's fair to judge those mitigation measures good enough in the circumstances.

KING: Peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban have faltered. Can you talk about what that means for stability, and what does need to happen in Afghanistan to make it stable?

MILLER: Yeah, I have to say, I have a pretty pessimistic outlook.

KING: Really?

MILLER: I believe the administration has said that it would continue to apply its diplomatic muscle to the effort to try to get a peace process going, even with a withdrawal. But I think it's very unlikely that a peace process will thrive in these circumstances. It wasn't thriving already. It was already a low probability that a peace process would really take off. But the probability is even lower today than it was last week. And already we see the oxygen being sucked out of the diplomatic effort with the Taliban yesterday announcing that they would not participate in a round of talks that had been scheduled for next week.

KING: And so what might that mean?

MILLER: I think it means that there will be some efforts on the part of the international community to still try to get Afghans to talk to each other, but I think it's very unlikely that will materialize, and probably there will be an intensified civil war in Afghanistan.

KING: OK. Not great. Laurel Miller, now the director of the Asia program at the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. We appreciate your insights.

MILLER: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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