Is This the End of the Afghanistan War?

After 20 years, the United States will begin withdrawing troops on May 1.

The longest war in United States history is coming to an end. Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan. Speaking from the Treaty Room of the White House, Biden said: “I believed that our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective.” Have you?

To some extent, yes. The destruction of the Taliban forces in 2001 (Operation Anaconda) expelled most of al-Qaida from the country. As part of that strategy, Operation Cobra II in Iraq in 2003 deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime. The U.S. tactic of swiftly changing regimes, with fewer deaths than expected, was a success. After 9/11, there was no other attack of similar magnitude against American territory. But the U.S. and its allies have failed to stabilize the politics and the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The conflicts became a prolonged, complex and bloody series of uprisings. In Iraq, the persecution of Sunni minorities by the Shiite autocracy was instrumental in the rise of Islamic State, and the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011 only to send them back in 2014. Although they have expelled the Islamic State group, arising conflicts keep the country in deep instability. Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have been somewhat successful, with improvements in education, health and especially women’s rights. But the country remains dependent on international donations under a government that is territorially limited and paralyzed by corruption. Since the U.S. and The North Atlantic Treaty Organization suspended combat operations in 2014, the Taliban have reestablished several bases and regained military initiative over the Afghan government.

Strictly speaking, the only unquestionable success in those 20 years was the death of Osama bin Laden — but even that was the result of a special intelligence operation virtually independent from the troops in Afghanistan. The justification for the invasion of Iraq — the manufacturing and possession of weapons of mass destruction — proved to be false, undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. and its allies and undermining the credibility of its anti-terrorist efforts to the extent that it inflated the radicalization of Islamic communities.

The only winner in the Iraq war as Iran, which strengthened its influence in the country. In short, the U.S. did not win the war in Iraq and failed in almost all of its objectives in Afghanistan.

But does this mean that withdrawing the troops is the best decision? American analysts, advisers and diplomats warned Biden that it isn’t.

The bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group suggested that 4,500 troops would be enough “to secure U.S. interests under current conditions and at an acceptable level of risk. This number allows for training, advising, and assisting Afghan defense forces; supporting allied forces; conducting counterterrorism operations; and securing our embassy.”

The withdrawal start date, May 1, was agreed on by Donald Trump in an agreement with the Taliban, whereby the Taliban would break with al-Qaida and enter into negotiations with the Kabul government. None of these promises have been kept, and the announcement of the withdrawal eliminates any incentive for them to keep their promises. On the contrary, the Taliban will be in a position to escalate conflicts, eventually leading the government to collapse, reversing decades of progress returning to the brutal theocracy of the 1990s.

Biden is willing to take that risk to end this “endless war.”

Understandably, the withdrawal of troops has the support of many Americans. Indeed, the final date for withdrawal, Sept. 11, suggests that the decision is more motivated by political psychology than by strategic reasons. The U.S. says it will continue counterterrorism at a distance and will send resources to the Afghanistan government. The U.S. also proposed an interim power-sharing agreement between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, which the world hopes will work. But if Afghanistan becomes an incubator for al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, the U.S. may be forced to send back the troops, as it did in Iraq back in 2014. In that case, what appears to be the end of an interminable war may just be the beginning of a longer, more complex and bloodier war.

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