America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, is over. Almost.
But there will be no ticker-tape parades.
President Joe Biden announced this week that the remaining 3,500 U.S. fighting men and women will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the heinous attacks of 9/11 by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda forces. That triggered President George Bush to order a U.S. invasion of the country which had been a staging ground for al Qaeda under the tacit approval of Afghanistan’s Taliban government.
Biden’s decision delayed the final U.S. troop withdrawal that was agreed to by President Donald Trump and had been slated to be accomplished by May 1.
The 20-year war, the longest in America’s history, resulted in a troop build-up in Afghanistan of more than 100,000 and cost the lives of 2,400 American troops who died there and an estimated $2 trillion in spending.
Initially, the fight to close al Qaeda bases went well with U.S. special forces partnering with Afghan militias and air support closing those operations and forcing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders to flee to Pakistan by early 2002.
But then the counter-terrorism effort morphed into a campaign of nation-building, support for securing rights for women and democratization and that proved remarkably elusive in a country that has long been split over religious, tribal and political forces. It defied U.S. resolution under four different presidents and the war lingered even as many Americans wearied of it.
We’re not the first country to delude ourselves over the ability to bring disparate Afghani interests together — the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 in an effort to prop up a pro-communist Afghanistan regime. Russia intended to secure towns and roads and stabilize the country and get out within six months to a year. Instead, the Soviet effort against Mujahideen guerrilla groups in the mountains bogged down against the harsh weather and rugged terrain and the Soviets were there for nine years – at a cost of 14,453 Soviet troops lost and 53,753 wounded. The Afghan civilian casualties during the Soviet occupation have been estimated at a minimum of 562,000. After Russia left in 1989, the Soviet-backed regime collapsed within three years.
This past week, President Biden addressed the nation from the White House and said he would not pass the responsibility on to a fifth president.
“After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel, with our diplomats and our development experts, with the Congress and the vice president, as well as with (Afghan President Ashraf) Ghani and many others around the world, I have concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home.”
Biden is apparently pinning his hopes, as Trump did, on the idea that a newly-pledged U.S. withdrawal date of Sept. 11 will spur peace talks by Ghani’s Afghan government and the Taliban to reach an agreement on a framework for a future government. Those talks have produced no results since last September.
That seems to us wishful thinking, particularly since the Taliban already control roughly half the country and the U.S. withdrawal will likely spur efforts to claim more ground, harass government forces and reassert control of the country. With their brutal views on enforcement of Shariah law, women will once again be treated as second-class citizens and those who cooperated with U.S. forces and Ghani’s government could well be subjected to brutal treatment and even execution.
And, under the Taliban, Afghanistan might well open its arms again to Islamist terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Isis.
The U.S. may be finished in Afghanistan, but this will not bring peace.
Biden’s words may have been soothing to Americans tired of seeing our troops dying in a far-away land, but they whispered warnings of words from history when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London from Germany with a peace pact with Adolf Hitler, and told a crowd there, “I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Less than a year later, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland.
We won’t be sleeping well with Biden’s new pledge to abandon our Afghan allies by fall. The next battle is always just around the corner.