United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has defended the country’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, saying the “terror” threat had moved elsewhere and that Washington needed to refocus resources on challenges such as China and the pandemic.
President Joe Biden announced last week that nearly 2,500 US troops would leave Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks that triggered America’s longest war.
The unconditional withdrawal – four months later than a deadline agreed with the Taliban last year – comes despite a deadlock in peace talks between the armed group and the Afghan government.
“The terrorism threat has moved to other places. And we have other very important items on our agenda, including the relationship with China, including dealing with everything from climate change to COVID,” Blinken told broadcaster ABC’s This Week programme.
“And that’s where we have to focus our energy and resources.”
Blinken met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as senior US officials in Kabul last week and briefed them on Biden’s announcement that he was ending “the forever war,” which began in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Blinken told ABC the US had “achieved the objectives that we set out to achieve”.
“Al-Qaeda has been significantly degraded. Its capacity to conduct an attack against the United States now from Afghanistan is not there,” he said.
The Pentagon has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan from a high of more than 100,000. Thousands more serve as part of a 9,600-strong NATO force, which will withdraw at the same time.
The delay in withdrawal – even by just over four months – has angered the Taliban, which has threatened to resume hostilities against US forces.
Blinken however said Washington would be able to see any move by the Taliban “in real-time” and take action.
“So if they start something up again, they’re going to be in a long war that’s not in their interest either,” he said.
‘No guarantees about future post-pullout’
Meanwhile, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said no one can offer guarantees about Afghanistan’s future after US troops leave, even as he stressed the US would stay focused on “terrorist threats” emanating from the country.
Sullivan was asked on the TV network Fox News’ Sunday programme about the risk of a repeat of what happened in Iraq, where ISIL (ISIS) fighters seized territory after US troops withdrew in 2011. That led then-President Barack Obama to send troops back into Iraq.
Sullivan said Biden had no intention of sending American forces back to Afghanistan, but he added: “I can’t make any guarantees about what will happen inside the country. No one can.”
“All the United States could do is provide the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government and the Afghan people resources and capabilities, training and equipping their forces, providing assistance to their government. We have done that and now it is time for American troops to come home and the Afghan people to step up to defend their own country.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected what he said were “false analogies” with the war in Vietnam as well as any suggestion his government was at risk of folding under Taliban pressure after US troops leave.
Afghan security forces were capable of defending the country, he said.
“The Afghan defence and security forces have been carrying over 90 percent of the operations in the last two years,” Ghani said in an interview with the CNN network.
Former President Donald Trump said in a statement that leaving Afghanistan was “a wonderful and positive thing to do,” but called for a more rapid departure. Trump had set a May 1 deadline to withdraw.
Last week, CIA director William Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee that America’s ability to collect intelligence and act against violent threats in Afghanistan will diminish after the departure of US troops.
A United Nations report in January said there were as many as 500 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taliban maintained a close relationship with the group. The Taliban denies al-Qaeda has a presence in Afghanistan.
Announcing his decision to withdraw troops, Biden said the US would monitor the threat, reorganise counterterrorism capabilities and keep substantial assets in the region to respond to threats to the US emerging from Afghanistan.
“He has no intention of taking our eye off the ball,” Sullivan said of the president. “We have the capacity, from repositioning our capabilities over the horizon, to continue to suppress the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.”