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Analyzing the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Foreign Policy Brief # 123 | By: Ibrahim Sultan | July 21, 2021

Header photo taken from: United States Institute of Peace

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Photo taken from: Time Magazine

Policy Summary

After 20 years of war, the United States is pulling its forces out of Afghanistan and the nation’s longest war is coming to a close with as many uncertainties as when the war began. The conflict was born from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Then-President Bush vowed to win the newly declared war on terror. The declaration was followed by the U.S. military and NATO forces battling those responsible for the attack.

 In October 2001 U.S. and NATO forces officially began their assault in Afghanistan. Quickly after the U.S. assault, the Taliban regime fell and Al-Qaeda militants continued to fight the U.S. around the country through guerilla tactics. In 2003 Bush announced the U.S. mission had been accomplished and major fighting was now over. In 2004 Afghanistan drafted a new constitution and elected its first democratically elected President. Still, throughout the years the U.S. and NATO forces have gone back and forth on their plan and commitments to Afghanistan, with drawdowns and surges happening all too frequently.

At the 10 year mark, the U.S. had finally caught and killed Osama Bin Laden and had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The mission that the U.S. set out to do at the beginning of the war had come to fruition, Afghanistan had a democratically elected government, and the leader of Al-Qaeda was gone. Then-President Obama having seemed to accomplish the U.S. mission had plans to withdraw all forces by 2016

In 2017 as the U.S. continued its fight in Afghanistan, an emerging Afghan government came onto the scene and a strengthened Taliban continued to fight Afghan and NATO forces. A then newly elected President Trump opted to add several thousand troops to join in what had become up to that point a war spanning three administrations. In 2018 the Trump administration sought negotiations with the Taliban. The talks were called off in 2019 when a U.S. soldier was killed but then restarted as Trump eagerly sought an end to the war. Then in 2020, after months of official talks in Doha between the Taliban and the U.S., a deal was struck to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in a 14-month timeframe with the deadline to withdraw set for May 1st. 

President Biden became the fourth President to inherit the war. Biden had extended the deadline for troop withdrawal to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, moved up from the May 1st deadline set by Trump. In recent weeks as troops are withdrawn and bases closed, the Taliban has undertaken a massive offensive push. Having taken up to 85% of the country within a short timeframe and stating they would not take part in peace talks until all foreign troops were gone, leaving Afghans with no choice but to attempt to resist or surrender to their assault. Faced with this, the U.S. has stated it will leave regardless of what progress is made in peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. 

Policy Analysis

President Biden set an enhanced timeline for U.S. withdrawal to August 31st and acknowledged that it was unlikely the Afghan government will remain in control of Afghanistan and that there would be no moment of celebration, no mission accomplished.

 Biden has stated he does not believe there is a military solution to the conflict with the Taliban. “How many more, how many more thousands of American daughters and sons are you willing to risk?” Biden said in response to those calling for an extension of U.S. forces in the region.

Photo taken from: AP News

After twenty years of war, a coalition of forces pushing their way through the country, and hundreds of billions of dollars, before the U.S. has finished packing its bags, the Taliban have gained control of 85% of the territory in Afghanistan.

The Afghan army, even after years of training, cannot stop the Taliban’s offensive. Now as the U.S. commits to its pullout, it will have to watch as what is put in place in Afghanistan comes crashing down. 

The U.S. military is quite good at getting what they want, able to kill in large numbers or small targeted raids if need be, it is the only military that trains for wars in other hemispheres. There was no doubt the Taliban regime was in for its downfall when it came within the sight of U.S. forces. But the situation in Afghanistan required more than just military might, and in this regard, the U.S. has fallen short in the past and has done so again. The U.S. has not restored security or prosperity in Afghanistan other than in a handful of pockets throughout the country. 

President Biden recently remarked that the U.S. did not go into Afghanistan to nation-build. However, it should be noted that America did attempt to establish a system of government, a new constitution, train the army, with  George W. Bush even launching the Afghanistan reconstruction project in 2002. Afghans have paid the highest price for our efforts. Since 2001, at least 47,245 civilians have been killed in the war. The United States’ project in nation-building has not gone according to plan if there ever even was one.

There have been hard-won gains by women in Afghanistan, they have taken on roles as politicians, soldiers, journalists, and actors, and many now fear a return to Taliban rule where their advances could all be lost. During their five-year rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law on the public. During their rule, they forbade women and girls from employment and did not allow their education after the age of eight. And those who defied these rules faced beatings or death. Women and girl’s rights became a US selling point for the war in the eyes of a skeptical public and international community. Peace talks between the US and the Taliban have not included or paid attention to the rights of women.

Photo taken from: AP News

As we are on our way out, many questions about what the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan will be in the future continue to be asked. What will the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan be in the face of renewed Taliban offensive and Biden’s promise to support from afar? What will become of the Afghans who worked with U.S. and NATO forces and now fear for their safety as troops leave, will they all be granted asylum? When U.S. forces leave will that be the true end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan? Biden has stated he would keep the option to conduct airstrikes open. These questions and the shadow of the war will loom over current and future administrations as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates and the nation tries to emerge from decades of foreign intervention.

The twenty yearlong debacle that was America’s war in Afghanistan would never have had a clean ending. Had the U.S. not withdrawn it would have meant an untold number of years of continued fighting with no end in sight. Had President Biden gone back on former President Trump’s deal and stayed in Afghanistan there might have been increased attacks on U.S. troops and strong pushback at home. Were the U.S. to have pulled out sooner, the situation likely would have ended the same with the Taliban rising back into power as foreign forces left. 

The humiliation of losing to the Taliban might have been more of a deterrent to pulling out years ago. Today with a host of domestic issues facing the United States it seems to be less about defeating the Taliban than it is how quickly we can leave to avoid blame now that the deal is done. That we stayed for twenty years is unfortunate, but it’s hardly surprising. The question now is how to develop an effective post-war US policy towards Afghanistan in the face of so much uncertainty.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

Action Aid Afghanistan: A global justice federation working to achieve social justice, gender equality, and poverty eradication. 

In Afghanistan, we focus on ending violence against women and girls, promoting inclusive and resilient livelihoods, promote resilience among the right holders and promote civic participation.

HADAAF: Humanitarian Assistance & Development Association for Afghanistan is a not-for-profit, non-sectarian and political organization established in March 2004. HADAAF has implemented numerous short and long-term projects in partnership with IMC, SCI, UNICEF, WHO, Swedish committee. 

The overall mission of the organization is to contribute to the development and rehabilitation of Afghanistan and empowerment of the community to decide on what, where, and when to conduct development.

CSIS: The Center for Strategic and International Studies closely follows developments in Afghanistan, especially the role of the United States and the international community there. 

As security threats continue to evolve in Afghanistan, we must build and adjust U.S. policy accordingly. CSIS conducts research and analysis on major elements of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

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