The US withdrawal from Afghanistan
The US is finally leaving Afghanistan, 20 years after it invaded in a bid to destroy Al-Qaeda and its host the Taliban to avenge the victims of 9/11. President Joe Biden last week set the symbolic date of Sept. 11, 2021, as the deadline for American troops to pull out of the country, which has again lived up to its historical tag as the “graveyard of empires.”
Former President Donald Trump had initially set May 1 as the deadline to conclude the US withdrawal. That was part of the Doha negotiations involving the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban. That process, which started a year ago, is yet to deliver conciliation between the Kabul government and the Taliban. The latter is not keen on adopting the 2004 constitution or on sharing power with a freely elected government. Biden’s decision to withdraw will embolden the Taliban and will leave the government with fewer cards to bargain with.
The US wants commitments from the Taliban not to turn the country into a terrorist hub. This is far from the initial goal of the US intervention, which later included nation-building and turning Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy. The US may leave behind advisers on counterterrorism to help the Kabul government, but even then it is widely believed that the Taliban will pounce on the opportunity to take over most of the south and east of the country within a few months of the September withdrawal. The fall of Kabul is likely to take more time, since the so-called Northern Alliance of Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek tribes are expected to defend the city. After that, there will be a stalemate as tribes will delineate their ancestral territories. That could drag the country into a prolonged civil war and bring more chaos and bloodshed.
America’s departure will draw in regional and global superpowers including China and Russia. But that is another twist in Afghanistan’s sordid tale. What matters now for the US is to end a long and costly war that has failed to defeat the Taliban, rebuild the country and alter its trajectory.
Pundits will ponder the question: Who lost the war and who won it? The US sent thousands of troops, built military bases, trained the Afghan army and bombed, many times indiscriminately, towns and villages, resulting in civilian deaths and injuries. At times, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama opted to send more troops and increase the rate of drone strikes in order to repulse the Taliban. That worked for a while but, as the troop drawdown began, the Taliban regrouped and waged campaigns that allowed it to capture new territories.
The lessons of Vietnam had been forgotten. The US invaded two Middle Eastern countries between 2001 and 2003, hoping to contain rogue regimes and impose Western-style democracies. It misjudged on all accounts. Its military, the largest and most sophisticated in the world, failed to defeat the Taliban and was finally forced to sit and negotiate with an obstinate enemy that is ideologically committed to making Afghanistan an Islamist emirate. In Iraq, it faces a myriad of challenges, including a bolstered Iran that has become a menacing regional power.
At some point, the US will also be forced to rethink its presence in Iraq — a country that is bedeviled by the curses of sectarianism, mass corruption and foreign meddling. By 2017, the US was expected to have spent $2.4 trillion on its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both wars, the US intervention exacerbated the conflicts, leading to tens of thousands of innocent civilian deaths, the destruction of cultural heritage, a deepening of tribal rivalries, the rise of militias, and rampant official corruption. The nation-building experiment failed just as the regime change approach never worked. In both cases, America’s incursions opened the proverbial Pandora’s box. America’s departure from Afghanistan and later from Iraq will leave both countries in turmoil — many will say in a worse condition than before the invasions.
The nation-building experiment failed just as the regime change approach never worked.
But nations and leaders often fail to absorb history’s lessons. Today, Russia is massing troops along its border with Ukraine. Syria’s endless civil war is fueled by the military interventions of Russia, the US, Turkey, and Iran and its proxies. Libya’s attempt to unite and heal its wounds is hampered by the interventions of Turkey and the Russian military contractors. China is said to be threatening to invade Taiwan.
Military interventions have rarely delivered on their initial objectives. The memories of an abandoned and later looted US Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1975 may well be repeated in Kabul and Baghdad. In both cases, the US has failed. But, while its departure may bring relief to war-weary Americans, the conflicts it leaves behind will continue for many years to come.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010