When the world witnessed the deadliest terrorist act on U.S. soil nearly twenty years ago, no-one had anticipated the subsequent war that would cost decades of time, millions of lives, and trillions of capital.
In the months following September 11th, 2001, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government, who had harboured the Al Qaeda leaders behind the 9/11 attack. The troops quickly defeated the fighters and Taliban government in December 2001.
But the fighting did not end there. As America’s focus pivoted from conflict to rebuilding, troops stayed to reconstruct the infrastructure of a crippled state and establish a Western democracy, keeping the Taliban at the peripheries. This process extended for an astonishing twenty years, far longer than what anyone had primarily estimated.
But now, “it’s time to end America’s longest war”.
Ending the War
On 14th April 2021, President Biden officially announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops starting from May 1st and concluding on September 11th, 2021. After the withdrawal, American spies and allies would still maintain a “less visible” presence in Afghanistan and the nation would continue to support the government through humanitarian aid.
This withdrawal date is an extension from the original exit deadline declared by the Trump administration last year. Trump had struck a February 2020 peace deal the Taliban to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1st, 2021, and in return, the Taliban would cut ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence, and negotiate with the Afghan government. Biden’s decision to extend this deadline was made based upon an administrative review on Afghanistan–U.S. negotiations being inefficient, where the Taliban remains a potent threat.
The withdrawal plan from Afghanistan received mixed responses. Within America, it received backlash from most Republicans, who claimed that “it is a retreat in the face of an enemy” and a “disaster in the making”. Many believed that a U.S. military base was required in Afghanistan to prevent a resurgence of terrorist threats. On the other end of the spectrum, Democrats greeted the plan with relief: too much blood and lives have been lost already, and the “Afghan people must decide their own future”. The trade-off is clear: the withdrawal implies American lives, money, and efforts saved at the expense of long-term security against future violence and terrorist attacks are lost. For the U.S., it seems like a palatable option— at least, in the short term.
What about the Afghans?
But the near future seems far grimmer for those caught in Afghanistan. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman claimed, “any delay after May 1 is not acceptable for us.” The discontent in the breach of the original peace deal manifested in the insurgence of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, including multiple bombings at a girls’ school in Kabul, killing more than 60 people. In addition, the Kabul government believes that the Taliban would try to reseize power through force and violence after the Americans’ exit. And they might be successful— the Afghan armed forces with low morale and uncertain pay may be defeated by the Taliban, even with the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch now weakened greatly within the country. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani may soon find himself in trouble.
Similarly, Afghans who worked for the U.S. would also become the largest target after America’s withdrawal. Interpreters and engineers for the U.S. army in Afghanistan fear for their future and the ever-looming possibility of Taliban revenge. Meanwhile, government bureaucracy means that applying for an American visa for these workers may take months, even years.
Among those who would suffer most are the women and minority groups in the country. The Taliban is unambiguously ruthless towards women and their rights. Their deputy chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, stated last year, “the only work done…in the name of women’s rights, is the promotion of immorality and anti-Islamic culture”. A stricter rule towards women and widespread persecution of minority groups may return, should the Taliban regain standing in Afghanistan.
The Future We Face
The decision of withdrawal boils down to a bet: the bet that the Taliban would not regain terrorist control. And the future all hinges on the result of that bet. Even though American officials claim that the internal terrorist threat “has been dramatically reduced in the last 20 years” and NATO reassures that it would “continue to stand with Afghanistan, its people and institutions in promoting security and upholding the gains of the last 20 years”, the future remains uncertain. The Taliban should not be under-estimated.
Either way, the shots have been called. By 11th September 2021, all U.S. troops will find themselves back home, and the Afghanistan will independently face a looming threat.
What happens next can only be revealed through time.
CNN, Priscilla Alvarez and Kylie Atwood. n.d. “Afghans Working for US Worry about Their Future after Biden Withdrawal Announcement.” CNN. Accessed May 28, 2021. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/21/politics/us-afghanistan-withdrawal-visa/index.html.
Nossiter, Adam. 2021. “The Crucial Questions for Afghanistan.” The New York Times, April 14, 2021, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/14/world/asia/afghanistan-troop-withdrawal.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
Ryan, Missy, and Karen DeYoung. 2021. “Biden Will Withdraw All U.S. Forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.” Washington Post, April 13, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/biden-us-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan/2021/04/13/918c3cae-9beb-11eb-8a83-3bc1fa69c2e8_story.html.
Sanger, David E., and Michael D. Shear. 2021. “Biden, Setting Afghanistan Withdrawal, Says ‘It Is Time to End the Forever War.’” The New York Times, April 15, 2021, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/14/us/politics/biden-afghanistan-troop-withdrawal.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
Washington Post. n.d. “Republicans Say Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal Plan Is ‘Dumber than Dirt.’” Accessed May 28, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/republicans-afghanistan-biden/2021/04/13/7167a2f8-9c84-11eb-b7a8-014b14aeb9e4_story.html.
Zucchino, David. 2021. “The War in Afghanistan: How It Started and How It Is Ending.” The New York Times, April 23, 2021, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-us.html.