After nearly 20 years of intervention in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden vowed in a White House remark on April 14th to end the longest war in American history by withdrawing all U.S. combat troops by September 11th. According to the New York Times, other N.A.T.O. members are expected to follow suit in withdrawing forces.
The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Kabul after Biden’s statement and reassured Afghan leaders that the military withdrawal would not be exclusive to the United States’ continued effort to protect Afghanistan through advice and aid.
The United States has a reputation as a widespread interventionist force in a political, economic, and, most notoriously, a military sense. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, 57% of Americans feel wary about America’s involvement in other countries. A plurality of Americans believe that the U.S. should withdraw from its military engagement in Afghanistan, a war which, for some American soldiers, has become a family tradition. Biden’s move to carefully draw down the remaining counterinsurgency forces in Afghanistan represents the many Americans who have longed for decades for an end to the violence. The president symbolically demonstrated the gravity of the moment by making his statement in the Treaty Room where former president George W. Bush publicly announced the first military acts against terrorist networks in Afghanistan.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking,” Biden said.
Despite military success in allowing for a constitutional government to reclaim authority over the country, the United States maintained its military presence in Afghanistan as a continuation of the war against insurgent terrorism, the Washington Post notes. In 2009, President Barack Obama assumed office with a strategy meant to dramatically increase troop numbers and have all U.S. troops withdrawn by the end of his tenure. According to a CNN timeline, Obama ordered increases of up to 50,000 troops before a gradual withdrawal of 33,000 troops. At the end of 2014, the combat mission ended and the war effort entered its smaller counterterrorism phase, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Despite his defense secretary’s announcement that the combat mission would end successfully in 2013, Obama’s strategy did not meet its objectives. According to Radio Free Europe, the Taliban today holds more territory than it has since 2001.
In other words, despite initial success against the Taliban, American forces have made little progress in stemming its resurgence. In light of this, the withdrawal of American troops from a conflict that has raged for 20 years is good news.
In November 2020, Donald Trump ordered U.S. troops in Afghanistan to withdraw nine months after a U.S.-Taliban agreement, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. Trump aimed to have all troops out by May 2021. However, the deal between the two sides failed to include Kabul’s government. President Biden extended Trump’s deadline to September 11th to ensure that the effort to withdraw is conducted in cooperation with Kabul and abides by “the pillars of a conditions-based withdrawal,” the Diplomat says.
There is speculation as to whether the Taliban will again use Afghanistan as a terrorist hotbed and launching pad for attacks against the American homeland or its allies in the military’s absence. Many Afghan civilians reacted to Biden’s promise to withdraw with fear, uncertainty, and skepticism, according to the New York Times, and the fate of a democratic state in Afghanistan today is hazy.
Before its war with the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was undergoing a period of social reform, but the Taliban, bolstered by the “jihad,” seized control of Kabul and two-thirds of the country by 1997. The new social order they introduced harshly oppressed women and dissidents based on extremist Islamic doctrine, the B.B.C. says. Women were banned from working and stoned to death for certain violations. Beatings, torture, imprisonment, and public executions became clear and present realities for those under Taliban rule. As American troops begin to leave the country, Afghan civilians are anxiously anticipating the consequences. If the Taliban retakes control of the country, progress in democracy and women’s rights may see a swift reversal.
American forces have not been successful in eliminating the existential dangers that al-Qaeda and the Taliban pose towards the Afghan government. If Biden’s promise to withdraw and Secretary Blinken’s guarantee of continued cooperation are met, the American war effort that cost trillions of dollars will soon be seeing a transition to a diplomatic and advisory operation. Can the United States and other N.A.T.O. members provide sufficient support to Afghanistan through distant, diplomatic, and logistical means to effectively substitute for military intervention?
The United States must fulfil Biden’s promise. However, the United States must also be upfront about the incoming challenges to maintaining the Afghan people’s security. From 2001 to 2019, a 2020 United Nations report estimates that a total of 35,518 civilians were killed in Afghanistan. Between 2001 and the end of 2020, estimates of the civilian death toll reach up to 43,000. The dramatic spike in civilian deaths in 2020 and 2021 may be aftermath of the Trump-era peace talks with the Taliban, according to ABC News. Afghanistan has suffered perils of war which dwarf the human costs endured by the United States. This is why it is crucial for the United States to maintain a contributory role in its relationship with the Afghan government – just one without boots on the ground. The U.S. cannot give the Taliban an opening to escalate the conflict.
Furthermore, N.A.T.O.’s decision to withdraw alongside U.S. forces should be applauded; pulling back forces from a conflict that fails to indicate progress can save lives. The decision also represents a renewed cooperation within the democratic alliance. However, N.A.T.O. member countries must similarly provide the Afghan government with diplomatic, distant, logistical means of support to prevent the country from falling into terrorist hands.
According to Reuters, countries neighbouring Afghanistan feared in 2019 that a U.S. withdrawal would trigger a refugee crisis consisting of hundreds of thousands of refugees. This international concern is likely to re-emerge given Biden’s new promise. In order to address this issue in a moral and ethical way, the United States, safe havens neighbouring Afghanistan, and other countries around the world should organize both a temporary and a permanent plan to safely host the refugees, since the onset of a civil war or Taliban takeover is not out of the question. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee have a heightened responsibility to call upon governments to cherish and protect the lives of potential asylum seekers.
If governments can use the money they would have otherwise spent on military involvement to funnel aid to those in need, the situation would benefit all parties – except, of course, for those who wish to harm Afghans, democracy, and women’s rights. Hopefully, the withdrawal will signal a new effort to reassess U.S. military involvement in other countries as well. The global effort to fight terrorism is a noble cause, but if a continued presence fails to achieve any substantial progress, the United States must re-evaluate and re-imagine its role.
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