President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan marks a significant reduction in America’s participation in the war. But it is unlikely to mean peace for Afghans themselves, who remain caught between a weak and corrupt central government long propped up by U.S. military might and a resurgent Taliban movement that is stronger than at any time since the United States invaded.
The question of timing hung heavily over Biden’s announcement Wednesday that America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan would soon come to an end, with the remaining 2,500 American troops in the country scheduled to come home on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The violent disintegration of Afghan society began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country, but the decision in the early years of this century to occupy Afghanistan and try to transform it into a liberal democracy at great cost in lives and resources has made America a key force in Afghanistan’s fate.
The U.S. will leave without having accomplished its goals and with more Afghan suffering ahead. It also doesn’t seem that America’s own “forever war” is actually ending. Biden reserved the right to carry out airstrikes and raids against suspected threats in Afghanistan indefinitely — washing America’s hands of its involvement in inter-Afghan conflict, while signaling that the United States would still be killing people in the country when it deems necessary.
This “light footprint” approach could have been adopted by the U.S. government from a position of greater strength in 2002, or at many points since. Having achieved the baseline goal of responding to the 9/11 attacks and scattering Al Qaeda’s networks in the country, there was a genuine chance to declare victory in the conflict. Instead, successive administrations chose to become permanent parties to an Afghan civil war that began with the Soviet invasion and has raged ever since. The net result has been to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Biden’s somber words reflected the undeniable fact that the U.S. did not win the war in Afghanistan. While no one else really won either, the Taliban make perhaps the most compelling case for having achieved victory after successfully enduring 20 years of pressure from a coalition of the most powerful militaries on the planet.
The American public tuned out of from the war in Afghanistan years ago. But putting the entire endeavor into perspective, a damning picture of futility and waste emerges. The U.S. squandered resources and lives on an epic scale, while backing local Afghan allies looking to settle their own scores in a long-running civil war. The ultimate goal of eradicating the Taliban proved impossible years ago, as for better or worse they have proven themselves to be deeply embedded in Afghan society and to have significant political support that has been continually bolstered by the presence of U.S. forces and the failures of the Afghan government.
The costs of waging this war of choice have been high. In addition to roughly 2,400 U.S. service members who have died in Afghanistan, roughly 157,000 Afghans have lost their lives, according to the Costs of War Project run by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, including tens of thousands of civilians. The number of wounded and displaced is unknown but is believed to run into the millions. In addition to civilian casualties inflicted directly by U.S. raids and airstrikes, a network of death squads and militias built with American support seems likely to continue terrorizing Afghans for years to come.
The current talks between Afghans themselves being held in Doha, Qatar, seem unlikely to generate a sustainable peace agreement or even prevent an increase in violence once the U.S. withdraws. In recent years, even with thousands of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban has managed to increase its hold on territory and inflict staggering losses on poorly trained Afghan security forces, who may entirely collapse once foreign troops leave the country. While the U.S. is signaling that it is largely done with Afghanistan, a Fall of Saigon moment still threatens in the future, similar to the Soviet withdrawal that led a few years later to the violent collapse of its puppet government in Kabul.
In his speech announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Biden said, “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.” In many ways Biden is correct: The U.S. cannot and should not act as a permanent occupier of Afghanistan. That said, a collective decision by four successive presidents to keep the war going has prolonged Afghan suffering while wasting American lives and resources. After 20 years, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in favor of a minimal counterterrorism footprint. Many haunting questions remain, including why this change in America’s approach wasn’t made decades ago, what has been accomplished by the huge loss of life and resources, and who is responsible for the ultimate failure of the U.S. project in Afghanistan.