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Essential Politics: Biden pledges to leave Afghanistan. It’s a withdrawal years in the making.

Biden walks among headstones at a cemetery.
President Biden visits Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where casualties of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried, on April 14, 2021.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

This is the April 21, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Outgoing presidents often leave decisions for their successors to take on.

Over the last two decades, and four presidents, how to end America’s longest war — in Afghanistan — has been among the largest open questions. President Biden inherited it from President Trump, who inherited it from President Obama, who took it from President George W. Bush. Unpopular, seemingly unending and unwinnable, the war is a case study in how the choices of one administration echo into the next.

Last week, Biden formally announced a deadline of Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that provoked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — to end military involvement in the country.

“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” he said.

The prospective exit also has been years in the works. Obama promised to scale back U.S. involvement, but first he sent a surge of troops. Trump vowed several times to withdraw all troops, making chaotic progress that stopped short of a full exit. Biden is now the third president to make a similar commitment.

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Whether he will follow through remains to be seen. My colleagues David S. Cloud and Tracy Wilkinson have extensively covered the American involvement in Afghanistan, from Trump’s growing tensions with the Pentagon over withdrawal to the lives of Afghanistan’s youngest generation, which was born into U.S. occupation.

Taken together, their work over the last few years reveals the deep roots of Biden’s promise, and the complicated history that will color his path forward.

The long path to leaving

January 2017: A president who promised peace leaves office after eight years of war

During his first presidential campaign, Obama pledged to end the war in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq. He ended his presidency as the first two-term president to see U.S. forces at war for all eight years.

Experts saw his legacy as mixed. He did reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, cutting their ranks to 8,400, and his administration reduced American deaths — if not Afghanis’ — by relying on diplomacy and on drones to launch airstrikes. Yet intelligence officials said the U.S. faced more threats in more places than the country had seen since the Cold War. “We’re now wrapped up in all these different conflicts, at a low level and with no end in sight,” one expert told The Times.

August 2017: Trump presides over a stalemate and negotiated settlement

Trump the candidate ran as a tough-on-the-Taliban leader, promising a hard-fought and fast victory to end U.S. engagement. But Trump the president softened when it came time to reveal formal plans, Cloud and Wilkinson wrote with former Times reporter W.J. Hennigan. Fighting continued — to show U.S. forces could not be pushed out — while Trump promised that the 16-year war might end “some day” in a negotiated settlement. It was an acknowledgment that victory would elude a president who loved to win and refused to concede defeat.

“This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand you will not win a battlefield victory,” then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. “We may not win one, but neither will you. So at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.”

By February 2018, the Trump administration proposed a defense budget that increased spending in Afghanistan by almost $2 billion, for a total of $48.9 billion in the next fiscal year.

December 2018: Trump presses for peace talks and announces a withdrawal of half of troops

That month, a series of announcements signaled Trump’s growing dissatisfaction with involvement in Afghanistan. Increased Taliban attacks had caused hundreds of Afghan civilian and military casualties a month, prompting Trump administration officials to press for a cease-fire agreement, but with dim prospects, Cloud wrote.

Less than two weeks later, administration officials announced a drastic plan: withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan, potentially by summer. The backlash was swift from U.S. lawmakers, allies and even the Pentagon. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis was so furious that Trump would abandon allies in Syria and Afghanistan that he resigned in protest, as Cloud reported.

February-May 2020: A truce and a landmark agreement to withdraw

With 12,000 troops still in Afghanistan, the Trump administration brokered a temporary deal with the Taliban to reduce violence for a week in February, Wilkinson reported. The test was a success, and on Feb. 29, U.S. and Taliban officials signed an accord to end the war. The Taliban would prevent Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using Afghan territory to threaten the U.S., without renouncing its terrorist ties. In return, the U.S. would withdraw its troops within 14 months, setting a deadline of May 1, 2021.

The plan again drew backlash, from former Trump and Obama administration officials, who warned a complete withdrawal could backfire, Cloud, Wilkinson and Stefanie Glinksi reported. Even as conflict continued between the Taliban and the Afghan government into May, the Trump administration remained committed to removing troops.

November 2020: Hopes of exiting before the election dashed

Trump, hoping that a full exit in 2020 would boost his reelection prospects, made clear to advisors that he cared little about conditions in Afghanistan, Cloud and Wilkinson reported. He wanted out, period. By July, the number of troops on the ground had shrunk to 8,600.

But as the peace talks the U.S. hoped to broker struggled to get off the ground, administration officials said about 4,000 troops would have to remain into November. The Pentagon said too rapid a withdrawal would doom the talks, invite violence and cause American forces to have to abandon valuable equipment. Trump said he wanted a withdrawal by the end of his term in January, and in November — as he refused to concede his loss to Biden — he ordered troop levels reduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, to 2,500 in each country.

Trump’s relationship with Congress further deteriorated in December, in part over the bipartisan pushback to his withdrawal plans. It was among the reasons he cited in vetoing the annual National Defense Authorization Act, Cloud and Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.

April 2021: Biden says it’s “time to end the forever war.”

When Biden took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2,500 troops remained in Afghanistan. But the new president faced the decision of whether to honor Trump’s May 1 deadline for withdrawing them — the final exit from the war, Cloud wrote. Once again, Defense Department officials pressured the president to delay a full withdrawal as the deadline the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban approached.

On April 14, Biden made his decision public: The drawdown would proceed, but not so quickly. The U.S. would fully exit by Sept. 11, Cloud and David Lauter wrote.

“I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.”

A newspaper headline reads "Second wave strikes; U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan."
The top half of the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 9, 2001.
(Los Angeles Times)

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Policing, policy and the Minneapolis verdict

— The conviction of former Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd reenergized a push for sweeping criminal justice reform by President Biden and leading Democrats, who said Tuesday’s verdict was just the first step on the path to national healing, report Evan Halper, Eli Stokols and Sarah D. Wire.

— Anticipating an uproar, Facebook said it would crack down on violent content, hate speech and harassment ahead of the Chauvin verdict. But as Brian Contreras reports, critics are wondering why the platform doesn’t take those precautions all the time.

The latest on the environment

— China, Japan and South Korea are the world’s biggest funders of coal-fired power plants around the globe — and the Biden administration is looking to win their agreement to deep cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, write Anna M. Phillips and Wilkinson.

— Biden will convene leaders from around the world on Thursday and Friday as he marks the United States’ return to the global fight against climate change, Chris Megerian writes. Three people with knowledge of the White House plans say Biden will pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by 2030.

— Solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars will go far in helping California and the Biden administration meet their aggressive climate goals — but not far enough. As time runs short, scientists and government officials say the moment to break out the giant vacuums has arrived, Halper writes.

More from Washington

— Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to North Carolina on Monday to talk about economic opportunities and electric school buses as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote its roughly $2-trillion infrastructure, clean energy and jobs plan, Noah Bierman writes.

— The Supreme Court is weighing whether immigrants granted temporary protected status can get green cards — and if the Biden administration will make that decision, David G. Savage reports.

— The Justice Department has brought charges against hundreds of people who stormed the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot, but one of its most pivotal potential cases involves a man who never set foot inside the building, writes Del Quentin Wilber.

— After Jan. 6, many of the nation’s largest corporations pledged that they would suspend donations to elected officials who opposed the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, hindered the peaceful transfer of power or incited violence. The vast majority kept their word, report Seema Mehta, Maloy Moore and Matt Stiles.

— What is there left to say about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Plenty, it turns out. In a new biography, Pelosi dishes on chiding Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and using the nickname “Moscow Mitch,” writes Wire.

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