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Debating exit from Afghanistan, Biden rejected generals’ views

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden used his daily national security briefing on the morning of April 6 to deliver the news that his senior military leaders suspected was coming. He wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

In the Oval Office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to make certain. “I take what you said as a decision, sir,” Milley said, according to officials with knowledge of the meeting. “Is that correct, Mr. President?”

It was.

Over two decades of war that spanned four presidents, the Pentagon had always managed to fend off the political instincts of elected leaders frustrated with the grind of Afghanistan as commanders repeatedly requested more time and more troops. Even as the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan steadily decreased to the 2,500 who still remained, Defense Department leaders still cobbled together a military effort that managed to protect the United States from terrorist attacks even as it failed, spectacularly, to defeat the Taliban in a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for 2,000 years.

The current military leadership hoped it, too, could convince a new president to maintain at least a modest troop presence, trying to talk Biden into keeping a residual force and setting conditions on any withdrawal. But Biden refused to be persuaded.

The two Pentagon leaders stood before Biden near the same Resolute Desk where President George W. Bush reviewed plans in 2001 to send in elite Special Operations troops to hunt for Osama bin Laden, only to see bin Laden melt over the border into Pakistan. It was the same desk where President Barack Obama decided on a surge of forces in 2009, followed by a rapid drawdown, only to discover that the Afghan military was not able to defend itself despite billions of dollars in training. It was there that President Donald Trump declared that all U.S. troops were coming home — but never carried through a plan to do so.

There would be no conditions put on the withdrawal, Biden told the men, cutting off the last thread — one that had worked with Trump and that Austin and Milley hoped could stave off a full drawdown.

They were told zero meant zero.

In that moment, the war — which had been debated across four presidents, prosecuted with thousands of commando raids, cost 2,400 American fatalities and 20,000 injured, with progress never quite being made — began its final chapter. It will be over, Biden has promised, by the 20th anniversary of the attacks that stunned the world and led to more than 13,000 airstrikes.

How this last chapter of the U.S.’ time in Afghanistan will end is a story that remains to be written.

For Biden, the specter of helicopters evacuating the stranded, as happened in Vietnam in 1975, or American hostages being executed by Islamist militants clad in black, as happened in Syria in 2014, looms large. “We’ve seen this movie before,” Austin warned the president during one of several meetings at the White House before Biden made his decision.

But Biden had sat through hundreds of briefings on Afghanistan during his years as a senator, a vice president, a presidential candidate and a president-elect. Few if any of the advisers who joined him for four big Afghanistan policy debates could tell him anything that he had not heard before.

For Biden, it came down to a simple choice, according to officials with knowledge of the debate: acknowledge that the Afghan government and its fragile security forces would need a U.S. troop presence to prop them up indefinitely, or leave.

“No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave,” Biden said in announcing his decision Wednesday. “So, when will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years?”

The story of how Biden decided to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan should surprise no one who has spent more than 10 minutes in his company over the past two decades. Yes, he had joined 97 other senators Sept. 14, 2001, to vote in favor of going to war in Afghanistan. He had even been in favor of the Iraq War the next year.

But Biden turned on both endeavors and told anyone who would listen, in expository speeches that sometimes lasted for hours. In 2008, during visits to Afghanistan as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he “found confusion at all levels about our strategy and objectives,” Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, wrote in a memoir, “Duty.” Biden was so frustrated with the Afghan leadership, Gates added, that he once threw down his napkin and walked out of a dinner with President Hamid Karzai.

As vice president, Biden clashed with the Pentagon, including Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about troop levels in the country, arguing for bringing them down to a minimal counterterrorism force. (He lost that battle.) And Biden was furious, Obama reported in his memoir, at generals who were trying to force a decision to commit additional troops with leaks saying that if more were not sent, the result would be mission failure.

Obama wrote that Biden used a vivid epithet and warned him about generals who “are trying to box in a new president.” The vice president leaned forward, putting his face “a few inches from mine and stage-whispered, ‘Don’t let them jam you,’” Obama recalled.

Indeed, a quiet lobbying campaign by top Pentagon officials and regional commanders to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years, if not longer, started soon after Biden took office in January.

Military officials who had become frustrated with dealing with Trump, an unpredictable president who often blindsided them with tweets stating that U.S. troops would be coming home from one military engagement or another, said the chance to deal with a president who would actually follow a policy process before announcing a decision was a welcome one. But they also knew from the start that the methods they had employed with Trump were likely to no longer work.

The Defense Department had fended off an effort by Trump to abruptly pull out all remaining U.S. troops by last Christmas. Trump eventually ordered the force cut roughly in half — to 2,500, the smallest presence in Afghanistan envisioned by U.S. counterterrorism planners, from 4,500.

In the new president, Pentagon officials and top commanders were holding on to the hope that because Biden had campaigned during the Obama years to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan (as opposed to 100,000 troops), they might have a more sympathetic ear.

Shortly after Austin was sworn in Jan. 22, two days after the inauguration, he, Milley and two top military officers — Gen. Austin Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of the military’s Central Command — were in lock step in recommending that about 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon’s behind-the-scenes effort got a lift from a congressionally appointed panel led by a friend of all four men: Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., a retired four-star Marine general who was also a former top commander in Afghanistan and past chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Feb. 3, it recommended that the Biden administration should abandon the May 1 exit deadline negotiated with the Taliban and instead reduce U.S. forces further only as security conditions improved.

The report by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel examining the peace deal reached in February 2020 under the Trump administration, found that withdrawing troops based on a strict timeline, rather than how well the Taliban adhered to the agreement to reduce violence and improve security, risked the stability of the country and a potential civil war once international forces left.

The panel said that experts told it that 4,500 U.S. troops, the number in Afghanistan last fall, was the right figure.

But sending additional troops to Afghanistan went against everything Biden had advocated over the years. Even before he was elected, his staff had begun examining force levels in Afghanistan and, more importantly, what they could accomplish. There were teams of foreign policy specialists, all out of power for a number of years, looking anew at Afghanistan — and asking the question of what would happen if all U.S. troops were pulled out.

The Pentagon effort received another setback when Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, conveyed intelligence assessments that the nexus of terrorism had shifted from Afghanistan to Africa and other havens. That raised the question: Was the United States massing its forces for a 2001 threat or a 2021 threat?

But Haines and the newly confirmed CIA director, William Burns, were also clear that if Biden decided to pull out, there would be costs to intelligence collection. On Wednesday, presenting the government’s annual threat assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burns said, “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That is simply a fact.”

There was another worry circulating in the White House, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. They feared that once the United States left, it was only a matter of time — maybe months, maybe years — until Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, fell. The discussion, one participant said, reminded him of accounts he had read of the decision-making over troops exiting Vietnam in 1973. Then, the Nixon administration was seeking a “decent interval,” to use the phrase at the time, before the fall of the Saigon government. It turned out the interval was a little more than two years, before people were evacuated from a rooftop 46 years ago, captured in a photograph that came to symbolize the failure.

The participant said the discussions on Afghanistan in the context of the collapse of South Vietnam were eerie.

But Biden argued that if Kabul were to be attacked, there was not much a mere 3,000 U.S. troops in the country could do about it. And as long as they were there, wouldn’t the Afghan government have little reason to become self-reliant for its own defense?

As the policy debate extended into March, Biden administration officials said they grew alarmed at news reports that suggested the lengthy debate meant that troops would stay.

At meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels on March 23 and 24, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to put allies on notice that they should start thinking about how to conduct withdrawals of their own troops in Afghanistan, a combat disengagement that the Pentagon describes as a “military retrograde operation.” Such movements often — as they are now — require sending additional troops to make sure that the departing forces can get out safely.

For Pentagon officials, it was starting to become clear that their efforts would fall short this time. But officials insisted that throughout the process, Biden heard them out.

“What I can tell you is, this was an inclusive process, and their voices were heard and their concerns taken into consideration as the president made his decision,” Austin told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, referring to the generals.

“But now that the decision has been made, I call upon them to lead their forces through this effort, through this transition,” Austin said. “And knowing them all very well, as I do, I have every confidence that they will in fact lead their forces through this effort.”

U.S. officials said Saturday that orders for the remaining troops to start leaving could be issued in the next few days. If they face no threats from the Taliban, the forces could be completely withdrawn well before the Sept. 11 deadline, the officials said.

The military commanders who have spent the past 20 years minding Afghanistan said that U.S. troops executed the mission as well as anyone could have. The two-decade war effort degraded al-Qaida and killed bin Laden.

But the rest — nation-building, democratization, establishing an effective internal security force, defending the rights of women and minorities — may have been a step beyond any military’s capabilities.

Adm. Mike Mullen recalled a dinner he had with the Pakistani ambassador in 2007, one month before he was sworn in as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As Mullen left the dinner, the ambassador, Mahmud Ali Durrani, handed him a gift. It was a long, thin, oddly shaped book done by the British just after the epic partition that divided the region along religious lines, displacing 20 million people and leading to an estimated 2 million deaths in sectarian violence.

“You need to read this,” Durrani told Mullen.

“Why?” the admiral asked.

“Because nothing has changed,” Durrani replied.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright: © 2021 The New York Times Company

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The Trump Organization bullish on Indian real estate: Donald Trump Jr

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New Delhi: The Trump Organization is bullish on the Indian real estate, which is its biggest residential market outside the North America, its Executive Vice-President Donald Trump Jr. said on Saturday.

New York-based The Trump Organization, which is a venture of former US President Donald Trump, entered into Indian real estate market through a partnership with Mumbai-based Tribeca Developers.

The US firm and Tribeca have tied up with local developers, including the Lodha group, to build luxury projects under ‘Trump’ brand. So far, four luxury projects have been announced, of which one in Pune is already complete.

“I have been bullish on the (Indian) market for a long time,” Donald Trump Jr said when asked about his future projects in India.

He was appearing as a guest in a talk show with Kalpesh Mehta, the founder of Tribeca Developers, being organised by Alchemist.

Trump Jr did not disclose about the company’s future projects in India.

The Trump Organization and its India partner are developing luxury residential properties of global quality and standards, he said.

Amid the global pandemic COVID-19, Trump Jr said there has been a “dynamic shift” in real estate globally, especially in office market because of work from home and remotely.

He said one has to see how it plays out post pandemic.

When asked about the current market scenario, Mehta said the Indian real estate sector was reviving after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic but the recovery process has taken a hit because of this second wave.

Maharashtra property markets had a strong recovery compared to the other markets, he said.

Mehta said the real estate market will see a sharp growth once the pandemic gets over.

In India, The Trump Organization has already completed a luxury project in Pune partnering with Panchshil Realty.

It tied up with Lodha group in 2014 for housing project in Mumbai which is currently under construction.

In November 2017, Trump Tower was launched in Kolkata comprising 140 ultra-luxury apartments and being developed by Unimark Group, RDB Group and Tribeca Developers.

The fourth housing project at Gurugram, Haryana, launched in 2018, is being developed by realty firm M3M.

Besides Trump Towers, Tribeca is independently developing few projects in partnership with other builders.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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A second chance for Hillsborough’s youthful offenders, plus more good news from around the state

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This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

The highs and lows from Tampa Bay and beyond, including a bipartisan victory for juvenile offenders, a curious bill signing and some sound advice on raising taxes.

The right kind of justice reform. Good to see Hillsborough County’s bipartisan support for expanding its civil citations program for juveniles. Giving young first-time offenders a way to avoid an arrest — and all the life-changing implications that follow — is another step along the road to a more efficient and just system. Hillsborough is following the lead of other counties, including Pinellas, that have had more robust citation programs for longer — and have benefited from the results. The citations will be mandatory for all misdemeanors except in a few extraordinary circumstances. “Our kids, our deputies, our police officers and our community have made this program a success, so we are able to take these next steps,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister, a Republican. Juveniles sometimes engage in youthful transgressions. This smart new policy acknowledges that reality.

Capitol opening. The state Capitol was closed to the public for the two-month legislative session that ended last week. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other prominent state leaders insisted on opening many other aspects of society, but curiously left the Capitol off limits to Joe and Jane Taxpayer. On the bright side, Senate President Wilton Simpson announced Monday that the Capitol will be open in time for the special session on gambling scheduled for May 17-23. Government is best done in the sunshine — and in view of the public.

A long wait for representation. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings died April 6. His successor in the heavily Democratic seat in Broward and Palm Beach counties won’t take over until January, when Gov. DeSantis scheduled the special election. Nine months is too long for about 800,000 residents to go without representation in one branch of Congress. It only took five months to replace Pinellas Republican Rep. Bill Young when he died in October 2013. Could the discrepancy be any more obvious?

Speaking of obvious … The optics of DeSantis’ recent signing of a voting bill say a lot about the motivations behind the controversial changes. DeSantis chose to do it in front of a fan club of former President Donald Trump in West Palm Beach. He also barred reporters, except for a TV crew from DeSantis-friendly Fox News. Opponents of the changes, which include altering voting by mail rules and limiting ballot drop boxes, have said the moves are an attempt to suppress Democratic turnout. DeSantis’ cherry-picked setting for the bill signing did little to assuage those concerns.

Taxing decisions. Pinellas County is exploring how to raise more money for transportation, from maintaining sidewalks to increasing public transit options. The solutions include raising the county’s gas tax from 7 cents to up to 12 cents and asking voters to agree to a new sales tax to fund transportation infrastructure. A hat tip to Republican Commissioner Karen Seel for stating what should be obvious: “We’re trying to evaluate if it’s the appropriate time to do a transit surtax, and you don’t want to do both at the same time.” Good advice.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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Gaetz, Greene take mantle of Trump’s populism at rally

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THE VILLAGES, Fla. – U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, two of the Republican Party’s most controversial figures, kicked off their “America First Rally” roadshow Friday with a Trump-centric revival of sorts for the MAGA faithful at a Florida retirement community.

The gathering appeared to be an attempt to position the two conservatives as successors to the former president’s populism.

“Tell me, who is your president?”” Greene shouted after walking out onto a ballroom stage in front of hundreds of supporters wearing “Trump” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” red ballcaps.

“Trump!” the mask-less crowd of retirees wearing MAGA red yelled back.

Joking that he was a “marked man in Congress … but a Florida man,” Gaetz called former President Donald Trump “the undisputed leader of the Republican Party.”

“Today, we send a strong message to the weak establishment in both parties: America First isn’t going away. We are going on tour,” Gaetz said. “It’s no longer the red team against the blue team. It’s the establishment against the rest of us.”

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Gaetz held up himself and Greene as challengers to the establishment and successors to Trump’s populism.

“They lie about us because we tell the truth about them,” Gaetz said of the establishment.

The indoor rally took place with just a week until Gaetz associate Joel Greenberg faces a deadline to enter a plea deal that could lead to damaging information against the Florida congressman. Gaetz alluded to the investigation by referencing what he said were distorted descriptions of himself as someone who has wild parties with beautiful women.

Both Republican members of the House of Representatives have come under fire in recent months, though for different reasons.

What began as an inquiry into sex trafficking allegations and whether Gaetz paid women and an underage girl in exchange for sex has grown into a larger review of public corruption. Federal investigators are looking at whether Gaetz and his associates tried to secure government jobs for some of the women. They are also scrutinizing Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana sector.

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Greenberg, a former local tax collector, has been accused of trafficking a minor for sex and faces a May 15 deadline to strike a plea deal with prosecutors. If he does, Greenberg may be pressed to cooperate with federal investigators and deliver damaging information against Gaetz.

Greene, a congresswoman from Georgia, was stripped of her congressional assignments last February for incendiary social media posts expressing racist views, pushing absurd conspiracy theories and endorsing threats of violence against elected officials

The controversies made no difference to the 300 supporters, mostly retirees, who packed into a hotel ballroom to listen them. A long line trailed outside the hotel with people who couldn’t get in once the ballroom reached capacity. The Villages, which was the fastest growing U.S. metro area last year, has been a Republican bastion for decades and is often a must-stop destination for Republican presidential candidates.

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Inside the ballroom, the supporters danced and clapped to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and other 1980s hits and waved their arms, loudly chanting the lyrics of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” before the politicians took the stage.

At least a half dozen muscled security guards in identical olive shirts stood around the room.

John Peil was in the crowd. He described the rally as a great way to cap off a day of golfing.

Of Greene, Peil said, she was “a great woman” who wasn’t afraid to take on Democratic lawmakers in Congress. There was a double standard between when Democrats run into controversies and when Republicans do, he said.

“They’re using a double standard on the two of them too,” Peil said, referring to the two House members. “It’s always the conservatives that get the dirt, and it’s always the liberals that speed away free.”

Zach Hussein and Josh Labasbas held up a black banner that said “Antifacist Action” in front of the hotel where the rally was held until a police officer politely asked them to leave at the request of the property owner. A passerby told them, “Go back to Cuba.”

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This version corrects the spelling of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s first name.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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