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Frustrated military officials want Biden to make a decision on Afghanistan

“There needs to be a decision,” said a senior officer. An ex-official said Biden is “dithering” and leaders want him to "tell us what we’re doing here.”
Image: U.S. Marines and Afghan Commandos stand together as an Afghan Air Force helicopter flies past during a combat training exercise at Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.
U.S. Marines and Afghan Commandos stand together as an Afghan Air Force helicopter flies past during a combat training exercise at Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on Aug. 27, 2017.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's lack of a final decision on the future status of U.S. troops in Afghanistan just three weeks before a deadline for their complete withdrawal has begun to frustrate some military officials, according to current and former senior U.S. officials.

"There needs to be a decision," a senior military officer said.

A former senior official described Biden as "dithering" and said the view among military leaders is increasingly "just tell us what we're doing here."

Whether to abide by the May 1 deadline, and if not how to proceed with a war that began 20 years ago this fall, is among the first high-stakes foreign policy decisions Biden has faced since taking office.

His apparent indecisiveness on Afghanistan has raised questions about what it portends for future foreign policy decisions, officials said, particularly given his extensive knowledge of this issues's dynamics and its key players.

At the same time, administration officials argue that Biden has tackled the issue methodically, immersing himself in the issue as he inherited it — with a May 1 withdrawal deadline — and how it's changed since he was in office as vice president, personally overseeing a detailed and lengthy process with different government agencies and U.S. allies weighing in.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that Biden, who will announce his decision by the end of the month, continues to consult with his national security team on the issue and "wants to take the time to make the right decision." She and other officials also note that Biden has said it would be "tough" to fully withdraw all troops by May 1, all but guaranteeing there will be an extension.

Current and former officials said any frustration among Pentagon officials with Biden's lack of a decision does not include Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin “has not expressed any concerns” about the pace of decision making on the issue, a senior administration official said.

“The secretary is very comfortable with the opportunity he has had to contribute to the inter-agency review process and to the decision-making process about our future in Afghanistan,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

The White House has chosen to hold off on a final decision on troop withdrawal primarily to give more time to a diplomatic push by Washington, in hopes that the Taliban and the Afghan government can come to an agreement on a power-sharing arrangement and a possible ceasefire that would set the U.S. on the path for withdrawal and ending the war, administration officials said.

The administration is betting that it can use the uncertainty about the troop exit as leverage to persuade the Taliban to compromise and cut a deal that would open the way for longer-term peace negotiations, the officials said.

"The idea is to try to see what leverage could be gained by not announcing when U.S. troops would withdraw, to try to move things diplomatically," said a senior administration official. "Because once you set the exit date, that's it. You don't have any cards to play."

In defending the delay on the troop decision, administration officials argue the White House inherited an agreement that essentially boxed Biden in, leaving him with a difficult set of choices on Afghanistan, and that valuable time was lost due to a flawed hand-over with the outgoing Trump administration after the November election. Trump administration officials at the time rejected accusations that they failed to fully cooperate with the incoming Biden team at the Pentagon.

Some Republicans in Congress have expressed concern that the president has already used up whatever leverage was available to him by saying recently that he did not envision U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it made no sense to withdraw U.S. troops based on what he called "an arbitrary timeline."

"We must ensure that any U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is based on conditions on the ground — not an arbitrary timeline — and that a residual force is maintained for the foreseeable future," McCaul told NBC News in an email. "An eleventh hour withdrawal will only endanger U.S. troops and jeopardize the ongoing peace negotiations."

There's a recognition that the war is essentially over for the U.S., and that there is little appetite in Washington for an open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan, defense officials said.

NBC News reported on March 18 that Biden has been considering a six-month extension of U.S. troops in Afghanistan past May 1, that the Pentagon had presented him with several options, and that "the decision is with the president," according to a person familiar with the matter.

The president has held multiple discussions with his national security team on the issue and pushed back on the idea of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely — a position he's held for more than a decade and promoted when he was vice president. Indeed the current number of troops the U.S. says it has in Afghanistan, roughly 2,500, is about the same size that Biden has long argued for keeping there.

Administration officials make the case that Biden has taken less time on his Afghanistan policy review than former President Obama during his first year in office, though the number of troops was far greater then, and will implement a more consistent policy than his predecessor, former President Trump.

Whatever his decision, officials said Biden is expected to support continuing U.S. funding for Afghanistan security forces and allow the Pentagon to continue to train local forces. The U.S. is also expected to keep some military officials at the embassy in Kabul as Washington does with other embassies.

Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib said last month Afghan security forces could “hold their own” against the Taliban even if U.S. troops leave, as long as Washington continues to help fund the country’s army.

Since 2014, the United States has provided about 75 percent of the estimated $5 billion to $6 billion a year required to fund Afghan security forces, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The May 1 deadline is part of an agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. that was negotiated by the Trump administration and signed last year in Doha, Qatar. Under the deal, the U.S. promised to pull all troops out by May in return for the Taliban's agreement to enter into peace talks with its adversaries in the Afghan government and commitment to ensure that Afghanistan is not used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the U.S. or its allies.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been engaged in a flurry of diplomacy in recent weeks, and is currently in Doha holding talks with the Taliban and Afghan government representatives in the Qatari capital, a State Department spokesperson said.

The U.S. diplomatic effort is designed to lay the groundwork for an international conference in Turkey this month.

"We encourage the sides to engage each other and discuss ways to accelerate the peace process and reach a political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire," the State Department spokesperson told NBC News.

But so far, the Taliban has shown no sign it is ready to enter into a power-sharing deal in which they might have a role in an interim government, and the insurgents have warned the U.S. and NATO countries to leave by May 1 or face a "reaction."

The Taliban on Wednesday claimed responsibility for an attack on Kandahar airbase in southern Afghanistan where U.S. and coalition troops are stationed. Until recently, the Taliban had refrained from targeting U.S. and coalition forces since signing the Doha agreement last year, but the insurgents appear to have shifted their stance as the May 1 deadline approaches.

The Pentagon told reporters there were no casualties and that initial assessments indicated the mortar rounds or rockets did not land inside the perimeter of the airfield.