Goodnight Kabul: After nearly two decades of war, the U.S. is finally leaving Afghanistan

On April 14, Joe Biden declared that the longest war in U.S. history — the War in Afghanistan — will end by September 11, 2021, just weeks shy of reaching its 20th year. 

From the Donald Trump administration, Biden inherited a May 1 deadline for a final U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and was effectively left with four immediate options in Afghanistan — three of them realistic and one that seemed more aspirational than plausible. 

The first option was obvious: stand by Trump’s decision to withdraw the over 3,000 remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline. The second option was also straightforward: reverse course from Trump and leave the troops currently stationed in Afghanistan where they are and continue conducting military operations in the country. The third option was to begin gradually reducing the presence of troops in Afghanistan in an incremental phase-out. 

The fourth option, while more creative, is difficult to imagine coming to fruition. It consisted of reaching a new peace agreement with broad international support calling for a “90-day Reduction-in-Violence” among all parties to the Afghan conflict to allow for negotiations to implement a “transitional Peace Government” co-operated by the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

Experts called this a longshot from the beginning for a variety of reasons. For one, the Taliban does not recognize Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as a legitimate leader and thus, refuses to negotiate with him. Meanwhile, the Afghan government, located in the capital city of Kabul, opposes the possibility of the country’s 2004 constitution being rewritten. The United States’ proposed peace agreement stated only that the original constitution “will be the initial template,” leading to concern in Kabul that the Taliban could exploit its position in a shared government to gather exorbitant power over the country. Additionally, the political philosophies of the Afghan government and the Taliban differ so greatly that it was hard to envision a shared government would be functional, even for a short period.

Essentially, Biden had only three viable options: completely withdraw on May 1; leave the troops in place for the time being; or begin a gradual withdrawal of troops. In one of the most significant foreign policy decisions in his young presidency, Biden announced that the United States would begin pulling troops from Afghanistan on May 1 and would have all U.S. soldiers out of the country no later than September 11 — the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

Biden’s decision was somewhat surprising. Public opinion polls had shown that while the U.S. population did not want a perpetual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, it was far from anxious to leave. In addition, the number of U.S. military personnel in the Central Asian country was already quite small and, more importantly, there had been no American combat deaths in Afghanistan in over a year. Meanwhile, when Trump initially struck the troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban, the militant Islamic funamendalist group pledged to formally break ties with Al-Qaeda and halt attacks on Afghan national security forces and U.S. troops. It did not fulfill either of these promises. In fact, as recently as late March, the Taliban twice attacked a covert U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan.

The move undeniably has a number of positives. By pledging to bring all U.S. troops home by September, Biden has drawn a line in the sand to end the most drawn out military quagmire in U.S. history. He has also eliminated the risk of significant future U.S. combat deaths. Additionally, he has avoided spending tens of billions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future on the war at a time when the American people are in desperate need of domestic investment. Moreover, the war’s primary objectives — significantly weakening Al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden — were achieved long ago.

Each of Biden’s realistic options for how to approach the War in Afghanistan came with significant drawbacks. As such, this decision will have its share of negative consequences. As the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is completely eliminated over the course of the next few months, many experts predict that the Afghan civil conflict will intensify and the Taliban will capture all territory controlled by the Afghan government.

If the Taliban emerges victorious, as many experts fear, then Sharia law will likely be implemented throughout Afghanistan, completely rolling back hard-won rights for women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. Additionally, if the militant group wins, it will likely eliminate due process of law and curtail freedom of speech, expression, and education throughout the country. Moreover, if this scenario plays out, the U.S.-backed Afghan government will fall, meaning the loss of a U.S. ally. Perhaps most troubling to the United States, some fear Afghanistan could then once again become a safe haven for terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS to plot attacks against the United States and its allies. As it stands now, the Taliban already controls more territory than it has at any other time since being driven from power by the U.S. military in 2001. 

The withdrawal of U.S. troops will not depend on any preconditions. According to a senior Biden administration official, Biden believes “a conditions based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.” 

The White House stated that the United States will continue to provide development, humanitarian, and security assistance to Afghanistan and Biden asserted that he will continue to promote peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It remains to be seen how much of a role the United States can play in Afghanistan without military bargaining power.

The exit from Afghanistan was likely informed by Washington’s shifting priorities from the War on Terror to rising competition from Russia and China. 

Still, President Biden made clear his primary motivation for withdrawal: “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”

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