A Skeptical President
From the moment that news outlets called Pennsylvania for Mr. Biden on Nov. 7, making him the next commander in chief for 1.4 million active-duty troops, Pentagon officials knew they would face an uphill battle to stop a withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Defense Department leaders had already been fending off Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who wanted a rapid drawdown. In one Twitter post last year, he declared all American troops would be out by that Christmas.
And while they had publicly voiced support for the agreement Mr. Trump reached with the Taliban in February 2020 for a complete withdrawal this May, Pentagon officials said they wanted to talk Mr. Biden out of it.
After Mr. Biden took office, top Defense Department officials began a lobbying campaign to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years. They told the president that the Taliban had grown stronger under Mr. Trump than at any point in the past two decades and pointed to intelligence estimates predicting that in two or three years, Al Qaeda could find a new foothold in Afghanistan.
Shortly after Lloyd J. Austin III was sworn in as defense secretary on Jan. 22, he and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to Mr. Biden that 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan, nearly double the 2,500 troops there. On Feb. 3, a congressionally appointed panel led by a retired four-star Marine general, Joseph F. Dunford Jr., publicly recommended that Mr. Biden abandon the exit deadline of May 1 and further reduce American forces only as security conditions improved.
A report by the panel assessed that withdrawing troops on a strict timeline rather than how well the Taliban adhered to the agreement heightened the risk of a potential civil war once international forces left.
But Mr. Biden, who had become deeply skeptical of American efforts to remake foreign countries in his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, asked what a few thousand American troops could do if Kabul was attacked. Aides said he told them that the presence of the American troops would further the Afghan government’s reliance on the United States and delay the day it would take responsibility for its own defense.