As U.S. Troops Depart, What’s the Future for Afghanistan?
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, lasting 20 years. In the conflict’s second decade, plans for an exit of U.S. forces from the country were repeatedly put off, but President Joe Biden finally withdrew most of them ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline for a full pullout, and NATO-led allied troops followed suit. The drawdown of foreign forces corresponded with battlefield advances by the Taliban, the strict Islamic fundamentalists who ruled the country before the U.S. invasion. That raised questions about whether improvements in human rights since their ouster, particularly for women, would survive the U.S. departure.
The U.S. has encouraged the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to reach an agreement over the country’s political future that would end fighting, but peace talks that began in 2020 have faltered. By mid-July, the Taliban had seized control of more than 200 district centers in Afghanistan, about half of 419 in the country. The Afghan military, which receives training and advice from the U.S. and its allies, has been hampered by insufficient air power and heavy combat losses and desertions. In early August, Ghani’s office said the president, in an effort to prevent the Taliban from overrunning his administration in the capital, Kabul, had decided to cooperate with the country’s warlords, armed power brokers whose rivalries created the multi-front civil war that preceded the Taliban’s takeover in 1996.
In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out of Afghanistan, after a decade-long occupation that had made the country a front line in the Cold War. The U.S., which actively supported the Soviets’ opponents, including radical Islamist factions, also disengaged. Bloody chaos followed until the Taliban seized Kabul from the feuding warlords who had all but leveled it. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule, enforcing harsh restrictions particularly on women, who were largely barred from education and work. The Taliban also gave the terrorist group al-Qaeda a base. In 2001, after the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his group’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. When bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on a separate war in Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined the coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, led Obama to start winding down the American troop presence. Doubts that the Afghan military could stand on its own prompted him to leave the last of them in place when he turned the presidency over to Donald Trump in January 2017. Within a year, Trump had deployed an additional 3,500 U.S. troops to the country at the Pentagon’s urging. In 2020, frustrated by the Taliban’s tenacity, he struck a deal with the group and began another drawdown.
Biden’s decision to remove the last of American forces from Afghanistan drew some criticism from U.S. political and military leaders who worried that it would facilitate the Taliban’s return to full power and its reinstitution of strict Islamic law. Biden argued that it’s not America’s burden to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and that the price of remaining was too high given the odds of success; the U.S. has incurred about 2,400 fatalities and spent about $970 billion on the conflict. He has consistently maintained that U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be focused on protecting the U.S. from terrorism. In its agreement with the U.S. under Trump, the Taliban pledged that it would not allow al-Qaeda or other groups to use the country to threaten the security of the U.S. or its allies. Skeptics argue that such an assurance from the Taliban is meaningless.
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