Democratic opposition to the possible withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan grew on Tuesday with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, calling on the Biden administration to “reconsider” doing so.
Biden’s team hasn’t made a final decision yet. They’re still discussing whether to abide by then-President Donald Trump’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban, which would require America to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops from the country by May 1.
Important parts of that agreement are that the Taliban must refrain from killing US service members and curb ties with al-Qaeda. The insurgent group has kept its word on the former, but not the latter, experts say. A casualty report by the New York Times on March 4, for example, found that the Taliban had killed 21 pro-government forces and 22 civilians in the week prior. Further, a February United Nations report found that links between the insurgent and terrorist groups remain close.
Citing his concerns about the Taliban’s violations of the deal, mixed with doubts about the prospect of a peace agreement between the group and the Afghan government, Menendez said Biden should think about prolonging America’s military presence in the country.
“I’m very concerned about the viability of the peace process in Afghanistan,” Menendez said in response to my question during a small press conference organized by his office Tuesday. “The Taliban is clearly not abiding by all of its commitments,” he said, including protecting gains made on women’s and minorities’ rights.
“We may have to reconsider the May 1 deadline from the agreement that we had because the Taliban are simply violating it,” he continued, saying any deal can’t just have one side sticking to it. “No one wants to bring our sons and daughters home as much as I do, but I also don’t want to have shed so much blood and national treasure and see it fall back into chaos.”
Some experts have long agreed with that general sentiment. “The firmest ground to stand on to argue for a delayed withdrawal is the fact that the Taliban hasn’t met its commitments to cut ties with al-Qaeda as per that deal,” said Madiha Afzal, an expert on Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
But more importantly, Menendez is the latest high-profile Democratic lawmaker to signal skepticism of a May 1 withdrawal. In February, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the Senate Armed Services Committee chair, told me and other reporters during a session organized by George Washington University that “to pull out within several months now” would be “a very challenging and destabilizing effort.”
And Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), who leads the House Armed Services Committee, said during a Brookings Institution event last week that it was “highly unlikely” the US would meet the troop-extrication deadline.
Top members of Biden’s own party, then, are making it clear that they oppose sticking to the Trump-Taliban deal. That lessens the political space Biden has to move should he prefer a May 1 troop withdrawal. If even Democrats oppose that decision, he might field less support for other controversial areas of his foreign policy, such as seeking a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal the Trump administration left.
Instead, these Democrats would prefer the US keep troops in the country longer in search of a comprehensive peace deal.
To that end, the administration has launched a new diplomatic effort to try to encourage both parties to come to an agreement.
A letter Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a US-drafted peace plan proposal leaked on Sunday, revealing that the US is pushing hard to “accelerate peace talks” to end the 20-year war between Kabul and the insurgent group. Many experts took that as a sign that Biden’s team will blow past the May 1 deadline, but officials insist that isn’t the case.
“We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1,” a State Department spokesperson said after the documents leaked. “All options remain on the table.”
Antiwar groups are unhappy with these and other statements made by administration officials and Democratic lawmakers. Menendez’s comments can now be added to that list.
“People who think the US should break its word and continue to drag on the forever war in Afghanistan have a responsibility to explain what they think another six months or a year of renewed fighting will change,” said Alex McCoy, political director for the veterans group Common Defense. “President Joe Biden should not listen to Senator Menendez.”
The question now is how much pressure coming from Democrats like Menendez or antiwar groups will weigh on Biden’s decision. We’ll find out in no more than a few weeks.