Exit Afghanistan

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Wednesday 5 May 2021

Unlike many policies that US President Joe Biden has reversed after taking office on 20 January, he has decided to keep one major pledge made by his predecessor, Donald Trump: to pull completely out of Afghanistan.

Indeed, there was a relatively short delay compared to the deal Trump made with the Afghan Taliban leaders, but the end result is the same. So is the conclusion reached by what looks like a repeated scenario in the US’s major wars and invasions overseas, which have since led to the end of World War II. It is true that Washington can always be involved in wars abroad under the slogan of “protecting US interests” or even so-called “humanitarian intervention.”

But after failing to achieve their goals for a shorter or longer period, different US administrations, Democratic or Republican, are tired, and they decide that enough is enough and that it is time to pull out, either to cut down losses or go elsewhere. This was the same lesson learned from Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq.

The US and NATO have had a presence in Afghanistan for almost 20 years.

But the withdrawal, which runs until the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks claimed by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, comes amid escalating violence, with Afghan security forces on high alert for reprisal attacks.  

Under the deal signed last year between the Taliban and Trump, foreign forces were to have left by 1 May while the Taliban held off attacking international troops. But last month Biden postponed the 1 May date, saying some troops would stay on until 11 September this year, citing the security situation.

The withdrawal of US troops begins against a backdrop of fierce clashes between the Taliban and government forces in the absence of a peace deal. With peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government stalled, despite the drawing down of international involvement, it seems inevitable the conflict will continue, and possibly worsen, according to local and international observers.   

Biden administration officials have not denied that the decision might have dire consequences. However, they insisted that, in addition to major domestic challenges, the reality was that the United States had major strategic interests in the world like nuclear non-proliferation, and a clear need to confront increasingly aggressive and assertive Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. They added that the main threats to the American homeland are actually from other places: Africa, and parts of the Middle East — Syria and Yemen. Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point, according to US officials.

Biden and his team simply decided to ignore warnings that an abrupt American departure could undermine any achievements made in the past two decades, reduce the possibility of a peace deal and lead to a Taliban takeover. They cite the fact that the war has cost trillions of dollars in addition to the lives of more than 2,000 US service members. At least 100,000 Afghan civilians have been injured or killed.

Despite this enormous effort, the US undertaking has only produced an Afghan army and security force woefully unprepared for facing the Taliban, or any other threat, on their own. The Taliban already control a vast portion of the country, even with American military power present and their takeover again as sooner or later will most likely happen.

When Al-Qaeda’s historic leader, Osama Bin Laden, who was assassinated in Pakistan by US special forces in 2011, declared war on the United States in August 1996, he hoped the military confrontation would be long and bloody. He observed that, in one conflict after another, the Americans always cut the battle short and run away. “God has dishonoured you when you withdrew,” Bin Laden wrote, “and it clearly showed your weaknesses and powerlessness.” 

The main fear among those now closely watching Afghanistan is that the US withdrawal would not just demonstrate US “weaknesses and powerlessness” but also turn out to be a vindication of Bin Laden’s strategy.   

A complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan, based on an arbitrary deadline rather than conditions on the ground, threatens not only US interests, but the entire so-called international war on terrorism.  

It is foolish to think the Taliban will engage in good faith with the Afghan government or abide by the commitments made to the previous Trump administration after the American pullout. Therefore, most observers agree that the situation in Afghanistan can only worsen, with more and more innocent Afghan civilians paying a heavy price.

When America pulls out of a conflict zone at the wrong time, it creates a vacuum in which the terrorist threat can grow again. But in the case of Afghanistan case, like Somalia, US officials will argue that the US has done its best and failed, and that it could do no more to save what they will likely describe as a “failed state”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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