The site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 20 (XINHUA)
Afghanistan is the battlefield where the U.S. army fought the longest overseas. Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, the war's future course has come in the spotlight.
According to an agreement signed between the Donald Trump administration and the Taliban in late February 2020, the U.S. military forces would withdraw completely from Afghanistan by May 2021 if the militant group meets the conditions of the deal, including severing ties with terrorist blocs.
Nevertheless, Biden has announced that he will commence the final retreat on May 1 and complete it by the anniversary of September 11 attacks this year.
Twenty years ago, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, accusing the then Taliban regime of harboring Al Qaeda network's chief Osama bin Laden, the architect behind the attacks. Biden said 2,488 U.S. military personnel were killed and 20,722 have been wounded in the prolonged war.
On April 14, Biden addressed the nation from the White House, announcing that the U.S. had achieved the counter-terrorism objectives it outlined entering the war in Afghanistan. The time has now come to end America's longest-lasting war and allow its troops to come home. "I'm now the fourth U.S. president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats," Biden said. "I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth."
Nonetheless, not all U.S. military personnel will be pulled out. Some of them will stay behind to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Meanwhile, more staff will participate in humanitarian and diplomatic work and aid Afghan security forces. "While we'll not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work [there] will continue," Biden elaborated. "We'll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces."
There are roughly 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. But U.S. media reported this number did not include the 1,000 additional U.S. special forces in the country. In addition, about 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan rely on U.S. logistics and security support.
Prior to Biden's announcement, predictions circulated that the U.S. would authorize smaller numbers of military troops to maintain their positions in Afghanistan. Yet Biden decided to withdraw all of them. What may have been some of the underlying considerations for doing so?
First, by finally ending the war in Afghanistan, Biden can gain a good and benevolent reputation. The war has cost the U.S. over $2 trillion, with over 775,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan at least one time. It also caused more than 100,000 Afghan civilian deaths and injuries. Furthermore, the original American objectives for waging this war, namely defeating Al Qaeda and preventing Afghanistan from being the base of terrorism against the U.S., have already been accomplished. Overall, Biden's decision to withdraw will be viewed by the general public as a victory his predecessors failed to reach.
Second, Biden intends to dilute the role Trump played in this issue by rescheduling the withdrawal. Moreover, setting the deadline on September 11 allows the U.S. administration more time for follow-up action.
Third, the decision falls in line with, as well as commemorates, the attacks two decades ago. These acts of terrorism inflicted tremendous damage on Americans, and also in turn triggered the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Therefore, Biden's timing of September 11 is of huge symbolic significance.
Fourth, this withdrawal reaffirms the shift in focus on the part of U.S. national security. Under George W. Bush's administration, the fight against terrorism became the top priority on the agenda. When Barack Obama was in the White House, the importance of anti-terrorism had somewhat declined, and a major-power competition received more emphasis. Biden's full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan further showcases this trend.
The war against terror is losing momentum, and the U.S. needs to deal with "other priorities" overseas. The raging COVID-19 pandemic and general health of the population are also a top consideration for the Biden administration. "We have to defeat this pandemic and strengthen the global health system to prepare for the next one," Biden said.
Biden's announcement has sparked wide controversy at home. Republican headliners and the military, in particular, are eager to retain small numbers of U.S. troops on the ground as to prevent Afghanistan's situation from going out of control, potentially destroying the order established after years of American efforts. In addition, there are fears among government officials and people in Afghanistan that the country's fragile political stability might collapse amid a deteriorating security environment.
Such concerns are reasonable. Terrorism and violence might make a comeback after the U.S. and NATO retreat. Afghanistan has been the base camp for various terrorist groups. According to UN data, over 30,000 Afghan civilians were hurt in terrorist attacks over the past 10 years. Nowadays, the Taliban has continued to carry out attacks on U.S. and Afghan Government targets; Al Qaeda and the "Islamic State" extremist group, too, are probably waiting to launch counterattacks once the U.S. troops leave.
In the meantime, the peace process in Afghanistan might be obstructed, and the scenario of a civil war is likely. After the U.S. and the Taliban signed the peace deal, the Afghan Government, too, initiated talks with the militant group last September. During these negotiations, the U.S. troops in Afghanistan became critical bargaining chips. Nevertheless, thus far, the interactions have led nowhere. Against that backdrop, Biden's decision is seen as one further impeding the already slow negotiation process. If they lose the solid assistance and support from the U.S. military, Afghan security forces will be weakened and the Taliban will move into a position to put forward more demands. Consequently, the hopes for peace will fade.
All in all, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will set in motion a huge chain reaction, affecting the security situation in Afghanistan and the entire region. In the next more than four months, the international community, especially the U.S., must come up with a proper plan to deal with the problems that might occur in the post-withdrawal era. BR
The author is an expert on anti-terrorism with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
(Print Edition Title: Uncertainty, the Only Certainty for Afghanistan)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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