Why did Biden choose August 31 as deadline for US withdrawal? Here's a timeline
United States president Joe Biden on Tuesday reaffirmed his commitment to complete its evacuation mission in Afghanistan by August 31, the date laid out earlier to pull American troops out from the war-torn country. But why was August 31 chosen by the Biden administration to bring the operations, which spanned two decades, to an end? As debate rages on in the US over a potential extension to the deadline for the massive two-week airlift from the Kabul airport, here's a brief explainer on the events which led to August 31 being fixed as the final date for the US.
Donald Trump, Biden's predecessor to the White House, had in February last year settled on an agreement with the Taliban, deciding that May 1, 2021, would be the date when all US forces would withdraw from war-torn Afghanistan.
However, when Biden succeeded Trump in January this year, one of the first things he did was order a review of the deadline that the previous administration had set. On April 14, Biden announced a four-month postponement of Trump's deadline, saying that the troops "will be out of Afghanistan" before Americans mark the 20th anniversary of "that heinous attack on September 11th." Critics, however, warned that the conjunction of the US pullout and commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack might not look good.
Finally, in early July, Biden announced that the US military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31. As many as 25,000 US troops, several thousand Nato soldiers, and some 16,000 civilian contractors who remained in the country will be brought back, the US president announced.
What was the issue with the earlier deadline?
According to news agency AFP, the deadline to complete the evacuation mission was extended since Washington wanted to provide the erstwhile Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government more time to set up a fight against the Taliban. The US also needed a considerable time period to hand over previous US-controlled military bases and tactical equipment to the Afghan forces.
Washington and Nato partners expected that Afghan forces would at the very least be able to slow, if not completely stop, the Taliban offensive. The country's intelligence sources said that Afghan government forces should be able to hold on at least six months after the US departure, AFP reported.
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The delay, the State Department believed, was also enough time for the departure of US citizens and tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who worked for US forces and were promised "special immigrant visas" (SIVs) to resettle in the United States, according to the news agency.
However, as it later turned out, Afghan forces were overwhelmed by the lightning-fast Taliban campaign, which won the militants a series of provincial capitals in July and August, and soon they were knocking at Kabul's door on August 15.
Suddenly time was short.
Is the August 31 deadline sufficient?
The Pentagon, which is managing all Kabul airport operations, says it actually has to wind down evacuations several days before August 31, to remove its own 6,000-plus troops on the ground, hundreds of US officials, 600 Afghan security troops guarding the airport, and significant amounts of equipment.
Officials of Britain, France, and Germany, allies of the United States, have however signalled that they probably cannot complete all of their planned evacuations by August 31 and want the US to extend the deadline into September.
As debates on the extension of the August 31 deadline to finish evacuation rage in the United States, president Joe Biden, however, said on Tuesday that he was sticking to the end-of-August target and that his country was "on pace" to finish the US mission on that date. The statement from the US president came after G7 leaders held a video summit earlier in the day to discuss the matter of staying in Afghanistan beyond August 31.
"We are currently on a pace to finish (the evacuation) by August 31, the sooner we finish the better," said the US president. "But completion by August 31 depends on the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allowing access of the airport to those who are transporting out and no disruptions to our operation."
The US president stressed that the situation in Afghanistan could deteriorate the longer the US remains, and said that "contingency plans" are in place in case more time is needed. He also pledged that the US would be "a leader in these efforts" and will look to international partners "to do the same".
(With inputs from the AFP news agency)