The president may have found a way to remove the United States from the longest war in its history. But for the Afghan people the war is far from over.
The American announcement couldn’t have been more symbolic: By no later than Sept. 11, 2021, all troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. That will be the day of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, which led to the latest phase of the “war on terror.” Only weeks later, the invasion of Afghanistan by a coalition of mostly Western states began. Here, in the Hindu Kush mountains, the al-Qaida leaders around Osama bin Laden were hiding, enjoying the hospitality of the Taliban regime.
Al-Qaida leader bin Laden has been dead for nearly 10 years. Meanwhile, the Afghanistan mission has turned into a grueling assignment with many victims. President Joe Biden doesn’t want a “forever war” either; this is something he has in common with his predecessor, Donald Trump. Without further ado, Washington has now signaled to its NATO allies that the joint mission will come to an end in less than five months. And — in contrast to NATO’s previous statements — “unconditionally” at that. That is a slap in the face of Biden’s allies.
Biden’s Withdrawal Date Is Arbitrary
With the fixed date, Biden also wants to prevent new acts of violence against foreign troops after May 1. This was the date the Trump administration had stipulated and that Biden had initially called into question. The president’s new withdrawal date is — despite all its symbolism — just as arbitrary. And Biden risks causing more turmoil in a process whose chances for success are already uncertain.
The United States had pressed for the first-ever direct talks between the Afghan administration and the Taliban in autumn 2020. The fact that these talks have been dragging on was probably a motivating factor for Washington’s mounting pressure since the beginning of the year. There had been plans for different actors in the conflict to come together for a peace summit in Turkey in the upcoming weeks.
The announcement from Washington prompted the Taliban to cancel their participation. The Islamists no longer need to ask themselves whether they still need to partake in negotiations. Their chances to regain their coveted dominance by military means haven’t been this good in a while. The forces of President Ashraf Ghani probably won’t be able to resist the Taliban’s pressure much longer, once the remaining troops of their foreign allies have been withdrawn. The violence has already picked up again dramatically. Between October 2020 and March 2021, the number of civilian casualties rose by more than one-third compared to the same period last year to more than 4,500 killed and injured, according to a U.N. report published on Wednesday.
That makes it sound rather cynical when Washington proclaims that the mission’s objective has been achieved: to make sure the country doesn’t pose a threat of terrorism to the United States any longer. Biden may have found a way to end America’s longest war, but for the Afghan people the war is far from over.