By Annisa Essack
September 26th, 2001, saw the arrival of the first American troops in Afghanistan when a CIA team dropped into the Panjshir Valley in the country’s north. A decade later, at the peak of the war, the US had more than 100 000 troops battling in the Taliban. With less than a few months before another decade passes, the longest war in American history may be over—for the Americans, at least.
President Joe Biden has decided to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the anniversary of the terror attack that prompted the initial invasion, September 11th, 2021. The announcement according to an official is to be made on April 14th, 2021.
In February 2020, Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in which the US committed to reducing forces and then eventually withdrawing from the country by May 1st, 2021. This in place of the Taliban committing to break ties with Al-Qaeda and discuss a political settlement with the Afghan government. Joe Biden inherited the peace deal.
Since there has been little forthcoming from the Taliban on either count. On April 12th, 2021, the group said it would not attend a forthcoming US-backed in Turkey. On the agenda, among other things, the formation of an interim Afghan government that would include the Taliban.
Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani released 5000 Taliban prisoners last year but practically received nothing in return except for an increase in violence and further demands for Taliban prisoners to be released.
Mr Biden, though, had seemingly decided that he “could not picture” American troops remaining in the country until the end of this year. Despite warnings from his military advisors that the Taliban had made important gains on the battlefield recently and would probably take over the country if America were to pull out.
Others believe that with al-Qaeda weakened and the terrorist threat greater in the Middle East, Afghanistan was no longer of vital importance. However, the challenge from China in the Pacific was more deserving of American attention and resources. Biden, who as vice-president lobbied against Barack Obama’s surge of forces to Afghanistan in 2009-10, sided with the latter.
The US has approximately 3000 troops remaining in Afghanistan supplemented by several thousand private contractors. An “orderly drawdown” will begin before May 1st, 2021 to be completed by September 11th, 2021. By announcing a clear date, Biden may be hoping that he could dissuade the Taliban from further attacks on American forces. The certainty of the departure also removes any incentives for the Taliban to make concessions to supporters of the Afghan state.
Crucially, once the US warplanes leave, the Taliban will be able to press their advantage, not necessarily bringing about the state’s collapse but rather it will battle to stave off any insurgents’ advances. America’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, informed Congress in 2020 that the Afghan armed forces remained “a hopeless nightmare and a disaster. He further added that the government had “limited capability to move food, ammunition, medical supplies…to units in the field.” An American intelligence assessment published on April 13th noted that the Afghan government “will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
The move will also, certainly, create a challenge to the US allies who have approximately 7000 troops, including 1300 from Germany, deployed to Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led coalition that trains Afghan forces. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, in February, promised that “we will not leave before the time is right.” But in practice, without the insurance policy of the American support and airpower, those troops would be unable to remain in the country. Their departure will see Afghan forces further weakened and the Kabul government more isolated.
Without boots on the ground, the US is hoping to continue to keep al-Qaeda and Daesh in check using long-distance counterterrorism, like drones and special forces. However, the question then is — where would these forces be based?
The CIA can keep a paramilitary presence on the ground, working with the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service. The other is for the US to seek to place forces in Central Asia or Pakistan. But, according to Asfandyar Mir of Stanford University, “the politics of this type of basing remains enormously complicated and the administration hasn’t figured out a workable arrangement,” says. He adds, that until that happens, al-Qaeda is going to see further gains in Afghanistan.
US officials, however, say that they will continue “civilian, economic and humanitarian assistance programmes”. No doubt, the US is mindful of the lessons learnt from the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when the Soviet-backed government clung to power after the departure of foreign troops but collapsed after the withdrawal of funding in 1991.
The US departure will inevitably create a power vacuum with wider implications. Avinash Paliwal of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London says, “regional competition is likely to intensify.” With Pakistan, covertly backing the Taliban, India, Iran, and Russia place their support with anti-Taliban armed groups with the staples of war -money, arms, and intelligence. Any chink in the Afghan governments’ amour will see regional powers expand their support to their chosen factions to protect their interests and build influence against rivals.
President Biden’s decision has created a split on Capitol Hill among both Republicans and Democrats. Most Democrats said they supported Biden’s plan to finally wind down the longest war in US history, but some said they were concerned about losing hard-fought gains in Afghanistan.
More than 38,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. The conflict which sought to establish democratic governance, defeat al-Qaeda, and pushes the Taliban out of power has cost more than $2 trillion and more than 2,300 American lives.
President George W, Bush, on September 20th, 2021, as American forces prepared up to invade Afghanistan, told a joint session of Congress that “this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion.” He had correctly predicted the “forever war.”