On 7 October 2001, George W. Bush stood in the White House Treaty Room and announced in a televised address that the United States and Britain had launched military strikes in Afghanistan. Nearly twenty years later, on 14 April 2021, President Joe Biden stood in the same room and revealed his plan to bring to an end what had become America’s longest war: American troops will leave by 11 September 2021. America’s two-decade long intervention in Afghanistan will thus finally be brought to an end—closing a chapter that underscores the perils of foreign interventionism.
Invasion Turns to Quagmire
President Bush’s announcement took place less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that were orchestrated by al-Qaeda from bases in Afghanistan. The resulting invasion was the first in the “war on terror”—a series of conflicts against a murky foe, “international terrorism”—that by definition has no clear end. The objective of the invasion was vague; in Bush’s words to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations” and “attack the military capability of the Taliban regime”. “Disrupt” and “attack” set the tone for the next twenty years.
Initially, the operation seemed a success. By 7 December, the Taliban, a conservative political and military movement that had controlled much of the country since 1996, had been removed from power by the Northern Alliance—a united military front backed by the US and her allies. But this was not a clean victory. The Taliban and elements of al-Qaeda fled into Pakistan—denying the intervention a quick conclusion.
In the succeeding years, the NATO coalition shifted its focus to “nation-building”. In 2004, an Afghan constitution was adopted and the first democratic elections were held. As with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the initial invasion proved easier than ensuring lasting stability. The newly installed government was mired by corruption and inefficiency. From 2003, after regrouping, Taliban attacks steadily increased—growing more violent as they adopted new terror tactics. Afghanistan became increasingly unstable.
As the war dragged on, US objectives became increasingly unclear. The original goal of capturing al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban was inconclusive—as both had fled to Pakistan. Without a clear aim, the invasion stagnated. The intervention had set in motion a conflict that could not be definitively won—but one that ravaged an already war-weary country.
President Obama sought to turn the faltering effort around by ordering a surge in the number of troops. But with growing troop levels came tensions with the Afghan government that were exacerbated by allegations of electoral fraud and corruption. The WikiLeaks disclosure of thousands of classified documents devastated the already negative view of the war; analogies with Vietnam were increasingly invoked. After Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011—satisfying one of America’s early aims—they announced a plan for withdrawal, with a date set for 2014.
That proved to be wishful thinking. By December 2014, the NATO intervention was declared over and the majority of international troops had left. But ending a 13-year war is not quite so simple. An international force of approximately 13,000 remained in the country. Whilst major combat operations for the US and her allies ceased in December 2014, war in Afghanistan did not end. Nor did America’s presence there. Only in 2020, when the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban, was an end to America’s intervention truly in sight. That deal set 1 May 2021 as the deadline for US withdrawal.
An End in Sight
In his remarks on 14 April, Biden reaffirmed America’s intention to leave Afghanistan—but postponed the deadline from 1 May to 11 September. He pledged to “continue to support the government of Afghanistan” through aid and humanitarian assistance. The Taliban were warned that America would “defend ourselves and our partners” as their troops withdrew.
The Taliban have their own ideas. On 1 May, the deadline for withdrawal stipulated by the 2020 agreement, they intensified their attacks against Afghan forces and threatened to target NATO troops—arguing they were no longer bound by the deal. They have built up a local structure in the parts of the country under their control, administering schools and other services. Whatever agreement is reached between them and the Afghan government, the Taliban are likely to play a significant role in Afghanistan’s future—perhaps even as part of the government.
Biden’s decision has not been met with universal praise. Some fear that terrorist organizations could eventually return to Afghanistan, in effect undermining the reason for America’s intervention. Others argue the United States has a duty to the government and the Afghan security forces to remain until a better opportunity to leave arises. For his part, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani views the withdrawal as an opportunity, albeit not a risk-free one.
Does this justify maintaining an international military presence with no end in sight? There will not be a better opportunity to withdraw—America cannot “win”. Nor will the uncertainties over the country’s future vanish in a year or two. This is not an easy decision to take, but not to take it is to postpone the inevitable.
The dilemmas the United States faced throughout the war were characteristic of other foreign interventions, from the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Removing the Taliban from power and installing a new government set in motion events beyond their control and tied Afghanistan’s fate to the United States. The ensuing Taliban insurgency could not be decisively defeated and showed a determination to persevere. “Victory” proved elusive, and increasingly undefinable. After removing the Taliban from power and forcing al-Qaeda to flee, the intervention dragged out into a twenty year quagmire with no clear objective. Afghanistan has been embroiled in conflict almost continually since 1978. America’s withdrawal will not suddenly bring about peace—but nor will its continuation. It is time for America to leave. The intervention has taken a toll: a 2 trillion dollar bill and 2,442 American casualties. But that pales in comparison to the cost to Afghanistan. After nearly 50,000 civilian and an estimated 66,000 military lives lost, 2.7 million international refugees and nearly 4 million internally displaced people, the distressing question lingers: what for?
Words by Reuben Bharucha
Featured image credit: US Army, Afghanistan 2010
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