On 14 April, US President Joe Biden announced his first defining decision as commander in chief: to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan and withdraw all remaining US troops by 11 September, a symbolically potent date that marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Speaking from the White House, the president said “It is time to end the forever war. War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. It’s time for American troops to come home.”
President Biden’s announcement laid out the plans and timeline for withdrawing US troops in close coordination with their allies and the government of Afghanistan. The US will begin an orderly drawdown of its remaining roughly 2,500 to 3,500 forces that began this month. NATO, whose forces in Afghanistan number 10,000 and are heavily dependent on US infrastructure, will also commence withdrawal of its own personnel in line with Washington.
The move effectively ends America and NATO’s involvement in their longest and most costly war in history. The total military expenditure in Afghanistan is in excess of $778bn. More than 4,000 ISAF soldiers, nearly 2,400 American service members, and more than 62,000 Afghan national security forces have been killed. The most tragic costs have been borne by Afghani civilians — more than 100,000 have lost their lives as a result of the war since 2001.
Yet a clean break will not be easy, and the risks are considerable. After two decades of war, the Taliban still holds large swaths of territory. If they regain power, it could jeopardise hard-won humanitarian successes and progress on human rights. America’s role in Afghanistan’s ‘endless war’ might be coming to an end but hope for a lasting peace for the country remains elusive.
As America closes the books on its longest war, we look back to assess the impact and legacy of the war and look ahead to anticipate what this withdrawal might mean for Afghanistan.
The evolution of America’s mission in Afghanistan
Within weeks of the 11 September attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. The initial mission was to oust the Taliban from power, in so doing levelling al-Qaeda’s access to its safe haven in the country from which to launch another attack on the US. American forces quickly deposed the Taliban — a domestic militant Islamist group with ties with al-Qaeda — and crushed its fighting forces. As 2001 drew to a close, the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other top commanders had fled to Pakistan. In May 2003, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat operations in the country, and the US and its NATO allies refocused their efforts on reconstructing the desperately poor and war-ravaged state. With behind-the-scenes manoeuvring from the US, a little-known tribal leader, Hamid Karzai, became the first-ever democratically elected head of state in 2004.
But whilst in hiding, the Taliban’s senior leadership regrouped their military capacity and launched continued assaults on the newly installed democratic government in an attempt to recapture power. Despite his overwhelming popular mandate, President Karzai’s efforts to build a national army were upset by inadequate international support and after surviving several assassination attempts by the Taliban, he was left largely confined to his presidential palace. The Taliban’s resurgence corresponded with a rise in anti-American and anti-Western sentiment among Afghans. Those feelings were stoked by the sluggish pace of reconstruction, allegations of prisoner abuse at U.S. detention facilities, widespread corruption in the Afghan government, and civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO bombings.
To stave off the renewed threat from the Taliban, President Barack Obama deployed thousands more troops to Afghanistan as part of a “surge” that reached nearly 100,000 by mid-2010 — a move that then vice-president Biden opposed. But the Taliban, willing to inflict heavy casualties, only grew stronger, miring the US in an increasingly costly and bloody conflict. With the war at a stalemate by 2014, the Pentagon concluded that victory could not be won militarily and that only a negotiated settlement would bring an end to the conflict.
A long and humbling crusade for peace
If President Biden makes good on his commitment to withdraw all American troops based in the country by the September deadline, he will have accomplished a goal that his two predecessors, Presidents Obama and Trump, attempted but were never able to finish.
Former President Obama did successfully end all major combat operations, transitioning to training and assisting Afghan security forces. The Trump administration continued to reduce troop numbers and in early 2020, struck a deal with the Taliban that offered to withdraw US troops by May this year in exchange for reduced violence and a pledge to cut all ties with al-Qaeda. The primary objective of the deal was for Afghan leaders and the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal that would set out a road map for a new government and forge a lasting cease-fire. However, the deal failed to secure support from the government in Kabul, who are reluctant to include the Taliban in a power-sharing agreement, and the Taliban have broken their promises to reduce violence and cut ties with terrorist groups.
In his speech, Mr Biden noted that he was the fourth president to deal with the question of troops in Afghanistan, adding that he “will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.” But unlike his predecessors, Mr Biden is the first president to have rejected the Pentagon’s recommendations that any withdrawal be “conditions-based”, breaking with the approach of the past two decades. Troop withdrawal will not be contingent on striking a peace deal with the Kabul government or the Taliban and will not be dependent on the security status on the ground. “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” a White House official said.
“We cannot continue this cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result...We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago, that cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.” Biden said during his announcement.
Military officials have long argued that a non-conditional withdrawal risks the loss of bargaining power in peace talks and would signal to the Taliban that they need only wait out the Americans, after which they will face little opposition to seizing further power.
Will the Taliban retake power?
The US announcement comes even as the Taliban has been gaining momentum and territory across Afghanistan in recent months. The Taliban now controls more territory in the country than at any time since the U.S. first ousted the group from power in 2001.
The survival of the Afghan government is entirely dependent on the performance of the Afghan armed forces and right now, the picture is bleak. The Afghan security forces that will be left to defend the nation are fragile, weakened by low morale, scant resources, and sustained casualties.
An average of eight Afghans were killed and 15 were injured every day in 2020 due to ongoing fighting — a 30 per cent rise from the previous year —a surge that followed the start of peace negotiations in September. In the face of repeated Taliban assaults, Afghan security forces have abandoned dozens of checkpoints, allowing the Taliban to capture crucial roads on the outskirts of major cities, raising fears that they will attempt to wrest control of the capital from the government after international forces depart.
Currently the US spends $4 billion a year on the Afghan military — $74 billion since the start of the war. Mr Biden has pledged to continue providing assistance to Afghan security forces — including 300,000 personnel, who he says "continue to fight valiantly on behalf of their country and defend the Afghan people, at great cost".
A classified intelligence assessment presented to the Biden administration this spring said Afghanistan could fall largely under Taliban control within two years after the departure of international forces. If Congress decides to cut its funding to the Afghan military, that timeline will be brought forward — the current government would be overpowered within the year.
Mr Biden is hopeful that the US can diplomatically achieve what it was unable to do on the ground, but the prospect of securing a peace deal remains remote. Escalating violence has stalled ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government and full withdrawal has taken the biggest bargaining chip — leverage of U.S. troop presence — off the table. The Taliban’s commitment to negotiations with any entity other than the Americans has always been ambiguous. They recently pulled-out at the last minute of a much-anticipated peace conference with the Americans that was scheduled to begin in Turkey on April 24. Due to the Taliban's non-participation the international conference, essential to resolving the escalating violence, has now been postponed.
How will this affect the Afghan people?
Afghan women stand to lose the most if the Taliban reinstate their rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it banned women from holding jobs or receiving an education, mandating they remain in the home unless chaperoned by a male guardian.
The Taliban have said they would support women’s rights upon returning to power but only in accordance with strict Islamic law. But, according to Human Rights Watch, that hasn’t been the practice in some parts of Afghanistan that are already under their control. In those regions, Taliban officials, including “morality” officials, have reinforced already tight strictures on women and Taliban courts have imposed lashings on women for “moral crimes”. Where the Taliban have already made a deal with the government on education, they often forbid subjects like social sciences or English for girls, substituting religious studies.
What happens now?
As Americans return home, the prospects for the country and its people remain sombre. The history of Afghanistan — for which it earned the epithet "Graveyard of Empires'' — has been one of repeated foreign invasion and withdrawal: the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. After each invasion, the country descended into bloody infighting and civil war. There is every reason to fear that history will repeat itself now.
As the US steps back, Afghanistan’s neighbours — Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China — will look to step into the power vacuum, possibly evoking the proxy-wars and great power rivalries in the region of the late 19th century. The American century in Afghanistan might be drawing to an end, but inevitably, another foreign power will attempt to secure control of the Hindu Kush and win The Great Game.
The American withdrawal will undoubtedly be a blow to morale for the Afghan security forces. Without American military support, Afghan troops are up against a Taliban enemy that is frequently more experienced and better equipped than the average foot soldier. The attrition rate for Afghan soldiers is already unsustainable and will surely worsen.
This sense of desperation is endemic across Afghani society — many people’s lives, livelihoods and rights depend on US support. Safeguarding Afghan women and civil society has never been an official aim of the US military but in the absence of a clearly defined goal, it became part of the de facto rationale. While the US has been in Afghanistan, the number of children in school has gone from well under a million, almost all of whom were boys, to more than 9 million, 40 per cent of whom are girls. Life expectancy has also risen from 44 to 60. These gains are now at stake.
Afghanistan must now brace for the possibility of a Taliban takeover or civil war that risks completely reversing US efforts to support democratisation. There are also questions as to whether the withdrawal will allow the US military to preserve its more narrowly defined objective in Afghanistan: to prevent the resurgence of al-Qaeda to the extent that they could pose a direct threat to the US, its interests, or allies. Counter-terrorism will surely be weakened by a lack of frontline intelligence and there is every risk that extremist groups will establish new sanctuaries in areas not controlled by Afghan security forces. Ungoverned spaces are the greatest asset for extremism to flourish. Mr Biden is well aware of these risks. It was he, in 2011, who took charge of America’s final drawdown from Iraq. Within two years US forces were sucked back into the region by the rapid spread of ISIS.
By ending the US military role in Afghanistan, the Biden administration may simply be accepting the reality that perpetual war doesn’t assure protected security interests. Mr Biden has no good choices — the decision to withdraw, however anguishing, is understandable. But it will be the Afghan people who pay the highest price for America’s departure. After more than forty years of almost continuous conflict, there remains no end in sight in their forever war.