After 20 years of an apparently permanent and substantial US military presence in Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden announced on 14 April that American troops would commence withdrawing from the country on 1 May and that the withdrawal would be completed on the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States. He said in his remarks that the “forever war” had now come to an end.
Biden also recalled his trip to Afghanistan as US vice-president in 2008, when he visited the Kunar Valley on the Afghan-Pakistani border. The visit reinforced his conviction that the Afghans themselves had the right and responsibility to “lead their country,” he said, and he also reached the conclusion back then that an endless US military presence in Afghanistan could not sustain a durable Afghan government.
In his remarks at the White House on 14 April, Biden pointed out that he is the fourth US president to live with the Afghan War, there having been two Republicans and two Democrats, and that he had decided that he would not pass the US military involvement in Afghanistan on to a fifth American president.
The remarks were dubbed “the way forward in Afghanistan,” in which Biden laid out the reasons behind the American involvement in Afghanistan and the reasons why the time had come for it to leave. He told the American people that US forces had been deployed in Afghanistan in order to root out Al-Qaeda, which had planned and carried out the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
He stressed that the mission had been accomplished, mentioning the liquidation of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Another reason had been to prevent future attacks on the United States from Afghan territory, he said, but added that since 2011 the reasons for the continuing presence of American forces in Afghanistan had become “unclear.” Terrorist threats had changed, he said, and now covered more extensive geographic regions including Somalia, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
Not only will American forces be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan by next September, but forces deployed by NATO member countries and other partners will also leave the country. Parallel to the withdrawal, the US will reorganise its counter-terrorism capabilities and its “substantial assets” in the region in order to prevent the reemergence of terrorists in the country, Biden said.
In an effort to defend the withdrawal decision for American public opinion, Biden made clear that the Afghan War “was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking” and that it was time “to end the forever war.”
On the same day that he delivered these remarks, Biden and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had a telephone conversation in which the two men committed themselves to a durable partnership, with the US government continuing to provide humanitarian aid and development and security support to the Afghan people and government. The two presidents agreed that efforts should be made to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan so that the Afghan people could live in peace.
A day after Biden announced the withdrawal of the US forces, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Kabul, where he met with the Afghan president and other senior Afghan officials. His message was to reassure the Afghan government that the military withdrawal of the United States was not the end of the American-Afghan partnership.
According to Blinken, this partnership is “changing,” but it is also “enduring.” Both the Afghan president and the US secretary of state spoke about counter-terrorism and their “shared interest” that Al-Qaeda does not once again have the chance to gain a foothold in Afghanistan.
The US government has also reached out to international and regional powers that have a stake in the security and stability of Afghanistan and South Asia to help it diplomatically in reaching an enduring and sustainable peace agreement among the warring parties in Afghanistan. These powers include Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Turkey, and they are scheduled to meet in Turkey on 24 April to discuss the way forward.
All these powers have a stake in ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a hotbed for international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, which are already operating in some parts of the country. A key stabilising element in the Afghan equation will be whether Pakistan and India will continue to see Afghanistan as a battleground in managing their confrontation. In the same vein, Iran also has a stake in the political stability of Afghanistan, and the Western powers should not rule out cooperation with Tehran in this respect.
The diplomatic and political challenge of permanently pacifying Afghanistan will not be a walk in the park unless the United States makes it clear that the withdrawal of its troops should not be equated with the future appeasement of the Taliban, or, as they call themselves, the “Mujahideen Islamic Emirate.” The name itself is not reassuring, and nor are the long-term goals of the Taliban when it comes to any power-sharing agreement in Kabul. Do the Taliban leaders understand or accept the idea of sharing power with anyone?
The decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan has had its detractors within the United States as well as its supporters. It goes without saying that the decision to go to war on such a scale in Afghanistan was subject to scrutiny. There will be the same scrutiny of the decision to depart.
US Senator Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 16 April that withdrawing from Afghanistan against, allegedly, “sound” military advice “will come back to haunt the nation and the world, as it did in Iraq in 2011.”
According to Graham, the US military and intelligence community have recommended a “residual” counter-terrorism force to be maintained in Afghanistan. He did not rule out the outbreak of Civil War in Afghanistan in the medium term, and he has proposed the deployment of a “small United States-NATO counter-terrorism force in place” with the mission of supporting and helping the Afghan military and to continue “to push the parties to find political solutions to the complicated mosaic of problems in Afghanistan.”
I think Senator Graham is right in raising such apprehensions. The US and the NATO countries should strike the right balance between complete withdrawal and an enduring multi-faceted engagement in Afghanistan. The Iraqi example after 2011 is a case in point of what can happen in war-torn countries when a superior military force pulls out.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly