President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday April 14 that the United States would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 on the 20th anniversary of Afghanistan invasion. In a sober address, Biden said, "I am now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth one." He lamented that the United States had become mired in an endless and increasingly irrelevant conflict that more troops and more time would not resolve. Biden concluded that it's time to end America's longest war. "It's time for American troops to come home", he said. He did not declare a military victory but admitted that a perpetual presence in Afghanistan would serve no American interests. Biden referred to the conundrum his predecessors encountered. "No one would say that we should be in Afghanistan for ever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave."
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last week in Brussels and shared President's decision in advance. NATO members met after the decision was announced and released a statement saying they, too, would start withdrawing by May 1.
Biden's decision of troops withdrawal came suddenly but it was not without surprise. His predecessor had negotiated with the Taliban and concluded an agreement to withdraw troops by May this year. There were some preconditions attached that Taliban would dissociate with Al-Qaeda, engage in talks with the Kabul government, reduce violence and they would be tolerant with regard to girls' education and women employment. There has been, however, no compelling evidence of compliance. On the contrary, there has been increasing incidents of armed attacks in and around Kabul in recent weeks. Nonetheless, the agreement was concluded by the American government and it is obligatory for the subsequent administration to honour the agreement in spirit, if not in letter. Biden's decision stems from this treaty with the exception that the withdrawal period has been unilaterally extended by four months. Taliban has denounced the extension but did not seem terribly upset.
Now that the decision has been made at the highest level and the US troops have begun relocating heavy defence equipment to the Gulf region, the question arises what were the objectives of the invasion and have these objectives been achieved.
George Bush who ordered the invasion, said "This particular battle will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow…it may take a year or two, but we will prevail." Neither Bush nor his successors defined the outcome, the fulfillment of which would mark the achievement of the objectives. But successive US administrations agreed on one objective -- to destroy al-Qaeda and ensure that the terrorist groups could not use Afghanistan as a base to launch another attack on the US soil. The heavy bombardments in and around Kabul and Tora Borra mountain in January 2002 dispersed or killed the al-Qaeda leaderships and cadres. The Taliban government collapsed, and the US installed an Afghan government, of its choice, in Kabul and then in different regions.
In April 2002, Bush expanded the objectives and said, "the US would help its Afghan allies build a modernised nation, with a stable democracy, a strong national army, better medical care and a new system of public education for boys and girls alike. We know that the true peace will be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations." President Obama though eager to ending war remained committed to the broad objectives set by his predecessor. In the meantime, the Taliban steadily regained strength and escalated its guerrilla campaign. It was estimated that by 2008, the Taliban had gained a strength of about 11,000 fighters.
Obama at the request of the Pentagon dispatched thousands of additional troops to contain the Taliban. Obama in pursuit of semblance of victory installed a department with a robust budget within the State Department under the leadership of Richard Holbrooke to begin political reconciliation amongst different regional warlords, accelerate economic development, expand rural electrification, build rural infrastructure along with the military operations against the Taliban. This political-cum-military strategy suffered a setback with Holbrook passed away in two years. The Pentagon gained the upper hand and political reconciliation process was pushed to the back burner. Obama laid emphasis on training and arming 352,000 Afghan security force and paramilitary police who could take over from the US force in the battlefield. His military advisors exhibited full confidence in the newly trained Afghan security force to thwart any challenge from the Taliban. Obama wanted to withdraw all American troops by the end of his second term, but at the end, decided to retain about 8,500 troops when it became apparent that in absence of American troops the Afghan force would falter. During this period Taliban mobilised about 60,000 fighters under its command and about one-fourth of the countryside fell under Taliban control.
Trump pledged to bring the war to an end and declared in 2017, "Our troops will fight to win." He defined victory as "attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terrorist attacks before they emerge." He raised the troop level to 14,000. The military launched intensive airstrikes and bombings on suspected Taliban hideouts in order to weaken the enemy. But Trump knew there would be no military victory and initiated peace talks with the Taliban. Subsequently, Trump reached a peace deal in February 2020 that set the stage for troops withdrawal.
The Afghan war cost the United States over a trillion dollar. The military lost 2,300 soldiers and another 20,000 were severely injured. Allied countries lost more than 800 soldiers and many more wounded. Afghanistan suffered a loss of 60,000 soldiers and over 120,000 civilians were killed during the 20 years long war.
The achievements were no insignificant. More than 3 million Afghan refugees returned from the neighbouring countries with the assistance provided by the World Food Programme, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF. Schools were reconstructed and over a million children including girls returned to schools. Professional Afghan nationals returned from North America and Europe and participated in the rebuilding of health and education system. Maternal and child mortality rates dropped. Thousands of Afghan women tasted freedom for the first time and found employment in schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants and many established small businesses. Many Afghan women ascended to senior positions in the government. Major cities including Kabul gave a new look with improved roads, better housing, public transportation and full time electrification. Minorities enjoyed greater protections. Independent media proliferated and access to internet has been widespread. Now the departure of American and NATO troops would imply thinner security protections and in absence of financial support from the international community, the sustainability of the advances made in these sectors would be at great risk.
CIA Director William Burns told the Congress that upon withdrawal, "the US government ability to collect and act on threats will diminish." The senior officials in the Pentagon including General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs said, "the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, waves of Afghan refugees rushing to neighbouring countries and Europe and reemergence of al-Qaeda are very real possibilities."
The Taliban has not outlined its system of governance. It is presumed that it would revert to the system it had presided over during the period prior to the invasion. Secretary of State Blinken seemed to accept an inevitable Taliban take over and said, "If Taliban has any expectation of getting any international acceptance, it's going to respect the rights of women and girls or risk the withdrawal of international recognition." The Taliban does not seem to care much about international acceptance.
Biden argued saying, "our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are increasingly unclear" and disagreed that diplomacy cannot succeed without robust military presence. He said, "It's never proved effective - not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan, and not when we were down to a few thousand." But Biden should not lose sight of the fact that diplomacy has been applied infrequently and that too on the agenda undefined. Building democracy, expanding public health and education system, creating a national army presuppose systematic dialogue with local leaders, youth and religious leaders. This did not happen.
Biden speaks from his heart when he says, "troops should not be used as bargaining chips." But he would recall the consequences of precipitous troops withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. In less than four months' time, the Islamic State emerged and captured a huge chunk of territory in Iraq and Syria. Should a similar situation unfold in Afghanistan, how his administration would counter without redeployment of a massive striking force. People in Afghanistan are worried about the redux of Iraq episode following troops pullout.
The present contingent of 3,000 troops who don't engage in combat operations could be retained for some time. They share intelligence and provide guidance to the Afghan army. Their presence serves as moral support to the army, host population and would prevent reckless retaliation by the Taliban. They would also preclude Afghanistan from sliding into a breeding ground for the extremists.
With regard to Afghan political leaderships, history will not absolve their monumental failure in winning the confidence of the people, ignoring the essence of pluralism and turning Afghanistan into a failed state.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.