President Biden announced Tuesday that the U.S. will be withdrawing all of its forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on September 11, 2021. Biden’s announcement declared the end to the 20-year “forever war”, the longest in American history. Although the announcement brought an end to months of speculation on whether Biden would commit to Trump’s May 1st deadline, it raises many questions on the future of Afghanistan and a new era of U.S. foreign policy priorities.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks in 2001. The invasion’s public aims were to deny Al-Qaeda a safe base for operations by removing the Taliban from power. By that time, Afghanistan was no stranger to conflict, with the Soviet invasion in 1979 setting off a chain of events that led to civil war and the Taliban insurgency. In order to fully understand the situation in Afghanistan, we first need to go all the way back to the eve of the Soviet invasion.
Like all regions in the world, Afghanistan had its periods of peace and stability. Afghanistan was ruled as a monarchy by King Zahir Shah, from 1933-1973; however, after rising discontent with the monarchy among urban Afghans, Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan in a 1973 coup d’etat. The period following the coup saw Afghanistan transform from a monarchy to a republic, with Khan becoming the first President of Afghanistan.
However, Daoud Khan’s presidency wouldn’t last, as Afghanistan’s communist party, the PDPA, staged a coup d’etat following Khan’s efforts to suppress the PDPA’s growing power. In April 1978, militants loyal to the PDPA killed Daoud Khan and took over the Afghan capital of Kabul during the violent coup. As the new PDPA government was forming, it did not enjoy wide support from the Afghan masses, which led the PDPA to crack down on any political dissent. Communist leader Hafizullah Amin, who came to power after deposing the first communist leader Nur Muhammad Tareki, was known for his brutal responses to dissent, even being accused of killing tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.
Amin’s brutal dictatorship set the stage for the Soviet Union to intervene in December 1979, where Soviet forces deposed Amin and installed a new Soviet-backed government. The Soviet invasion quickly turned into a Cold War proxy war with the U.S. funding Afghan insurgent groups known as the mujahideen. After a disastrous war leaving up to 2 million Afghans dead, the last Soviet troops withdrew in February 1989, leaving a power vacuum that would lead to the rise of the Taliban.
A chaotic civil war ensued following the Soviet withdrawal and an interim government was established. In 1994, a religious leader named Mullah Omar along with his armed 50 students took control of their hometown of Kandahar as a result of the corruption of local leaders. Mullah Omar’s group became known as the Taliban and gradually gained control in Afghanistan until the militants took control of Kabul in 1996 with financial support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Among the anti-Soviet mujahideen groups in Afghanistan was a group of volunteers known as Al-Qaeda, led by a Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden. On September 11th, 2001, Al Qaeda coordinated four deadly attacks on U.S. soil that eventually roped the U.S. into Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom was launched on October 7, 2001 in response to the attacks. The U.S. led airstrikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets and by November, the Taliban had largely begun to retreat. The UN Security Council then passed a resolution that called on the UN to play a central role in establishing peace through a transitional government. By the end of 2001, the Taliban had been defeated and the interim government was established.
For a moment, it seemed that there would finally be peace in Afghanistan; however, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, made peace in Afghanistan too good to be true. As the U.S. began focusing its efforts on Iraq, it drew its attention and resources away from Afghanistan. There was a bleak outlook on the political sphere as well, as corruption rose in the interim government. U.S. military negligence combined with political instability caused by corruption paved the way for yet another violent insurgency in 2006. Osama bin Laden was eventually killed in 2011, but the Taliban held on.
President Barack Obama announced the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2015 and launched Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which aims to train and support allies for counterterrorism combat. The American presence in Afghanistan has been slated for a steady decline since. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel will end on September 11th, 2021, 20 years after the disaster that brought the U.S. into Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban have remained resilient all these years for a variety of factors, including money gained from the opium trade.
Where does Biden’s announcement leave Afghanistan? If there are any lessons from the Soviet withdrawal it would be that we should brace for a continuation of conflict for the foreseeable future. Intelligence officials assess that although Afghanistan may not become a terrorist safe haven like it once was in the short term, the U.S. could be pulled back just as it was in Iraq. Lawmakers such as Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have praised the announcement. Schiff supports troop withdrawal and claims that U.S. resources are better spent paying attention to the geopolitical threats from China and Russia and the rising threat of domestic terrorism.
On the other hand, House Republican Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) blasted Biden for his reckless decision, calling the withdrawal essentially “a huge propaganda victory” for terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Cheney’s fears are warranted considering the U.S. will be withdrawing at a time when the Taliban control more territory in Afghanistan than at any point during the invasion. The Taliban may claim victory following the withdrawal this September.
Despite the U.S.’s Afghanistan blunder, Biden’s decision may be emblematic of a shift in American foreign policy priorities. According to a recent U.S. intelligence report, China poses the most significant long-term threat to the U.S., with China’s “whole-of-government” approach seeking to undermine U.S. global influence and “foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system,” the report says. Biden is bracing for a new era of Chinese confrontation, which would necessitate all the resources the U.S. could muster.
During Biden’s speech on Wednesday, he made one point clear: “we must end the forever war.” However, are we really ending it, or are we simply moving from one “forever war” to another? It may be too early to call a winner in Afghanistan, but one result is clear: it is the millions of Afghan people who have endured the decades-long conflict that have lost.
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