President Biden will today announce the final withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, the Washington Post reports, bringing a long-awaited but not exactly triumphant end to the longest war in American history. Since military operations began in October 2001, more than 2,300 American troops, more than 1,100 troops from other countries, and well over 150,000 Afghans have been killed. Just 2,500 U.S. troops remain in the country, down from a peak of 98,000 in 2011. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are in Brussels today meeting with officials from NATO countries, who also have around 7,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The symbolically weighty date—the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that provided the original impetus for the war—is four months after the May 1 withdrawal deadline negotiated between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February, 2020. Biden, a skeptic of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan since the early days of the Obama administration, had previously said it would be “hard to meet” the May 1 date due to logistical challenges; the administration has also been working to broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The U.S. hopes such a deal will prevent the Afghan state from simply collapsing after the Americans leave, but little progress has been made over the past year, as violence in the country has only escalated. The Biden team has pinned many of its hopes on peace talks hosted by Turkey this month. The Taliban yesterday vetoed a planned meeting to be held in Istanbul this week, but on Tuesday, the Turkish government announced that talks would take place on April 24.
Since the deal was signed in Doha last year, the Taliban has mostly stuck to a pledge to refrain from attacking U.S. troops—although it fired rockets at a U.S. base in Kandahar last week—but not to cut ties with terrorist groups like al-Qaida. It had also threated to resume fighting the Americans if the May 1 deadline was not met. It’s unclear if the group has agreed to the new U.S. date.
Now that the Taliban’s main political goal, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, is on the verge of being accomplished, it’s hard to know what their next move will be. It’s possible they may be willing to seek some accommodation with their rivals in in order to gain international legitimacy; or they might just try to crush them. If the latter happens, it could have devastating consequences for women, ethnic minorities, and Afghans who worked with the American military or the U.S.-backed government.
Afghan officials claim their military can hold its own, though U.S. commanders are skeptical. The Taliban already controls all or part of more than half the country’s districts. The U.S. plan to continue to provide funding for Afghan security forces and humanitarian aid, and will continue to launch counterterrorism strikes from outside the country. There may also be a small military contingent remaining at the U.S. embassy.
The original justification for the ongoing U.S. military presence, to deny safe haven to groups like al-Qaida and ISIS, has faded in recent years: the most pressing terrorist threat to the U.S. these days comes from U.S. citizens, and ISIS has moved on to new territories. As for stabilizing the country, it’s not clear that any number of U.S. troops could do that, much less the small force that remains.
We’re a long way from the goals that brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan 20 years ago, not to mention the original decision to intervene in the country’s internal fighting 40 years ago; and Biden choice of a symbolic end date only highlights how far the war has drifted from its original purpose.
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