U.S. President Joe Biden said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday that it will be “tough” for him to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw the last troops from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.
Biden’s comments to ABC News were his most extensive to date about the deadline set in an accord struck with the Taliban under former President Donald Trump in February 2020.
His interview aired a day before Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, a delegation of top Afghan officials and opposition leaders and Taliban negotiators meet in Moscow in an attempt to kickstart deadlocked peace talks.
Some U.S. officials and many experts fear that if U.S.-led international forces depart before a peace deal is reached, Afghanistan could plunge into a new civil war, giving al Qaeda a new sanctuary.
“I am in the process of making that decision now as to when they will leave,” Biden said of the last 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “It could happen, but it is tough.”
Biden said Trump’s agreement was not “very solidly negotiated.” Even so, Biden has retained as his own peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran U.S. diplomat who worked the deal out for Trump.
The Taliban has warned it could resume attacks on U.S.-led international forces if Biden misses the deadline.
The 2020 accord specified a phased conditions-based U.S. withdrawal. Trump ordered it to proceed despite a surge in violence blamed mostly on the Taliban, a six-month delay in intra-Afghan peace talks and what U.S. officials say is the Taliban’s failure to fulfill a commitment to cut ties with al Qaeda. This diluted U.S. negotiating leverage.
The Taliban has denied that al Qaeda fighters remain in Afghanistan, where the insurgents provided the Islamist extremists with sanctuary as they planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The Taliban deny responsibility for the escalating violence.
On taking office, Biden ordered a review of the 2020 deal.
But in retaining Khalilzad, Biden adopted in large part a proposed peace accord drafted at the end of Trump administration calling for U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to surrender power to an interim administration, half of whose members the Taliban would select.
Ghani has repeatedly rejected standing aside, saying elections should decide a change in government. The Taliban reject democratic elections and the nationwide ceasefire called for by the U.S. proposal.
In related developments four people were killed and nine wounded when a roadside bomb hit a bus carrying Afghan government employees in Kabul on Thursday, while nine Afghan security force members died in a helicopter crash late on Wednesday, officials said.
The blast hit a bus which was rented by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Technology to transport employees, said Abdul Samad Hamid Poya, a ministry adviser.
No one claimed immediate responsibility for the blast, but the Afghan government has blamed Taliban insurgents for recent attacks targeting government employees, civil society figures and journalists.
The Taliban has denied involvement in the campaign.
The bombing comes on the day the Afghan government, Taliban and key countries, including the United States and Russia, gather in Moscow to push for a reduction in violence to propel the Afghan peace process forward.
Afghanistan’s defence ministry also said on Thursday that nine service members had been killed in a helicopter crash late on Wednesday.
Two sources told Reuters the helicopter was hit by a rocket during take off in central Maidan Wardak province.
It was not clear who fired the rocket and there have been no claims of responsibility.
The defence ministry said it was investigating the crash, which killed the helicopter’s crew members as well as special forces on board.
An airforce source said the helicopter had been on a supply mission that included transporting the body of a soldier and wounded members of the military.