The American Withdrawal from Afghanistan:
A Critical Look Forward
Joshua Burg | June 2021
U.S. Army Specialist James D. Fetherson and his fellow platoon members kneel during a pause in their mission in
Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, April 2007
n April 14, 2021, President Biden announced his intentions to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11th of this year. As of June 6th, the U.S. reached a new milestone with approximately 50% of all troops and equipment successfully withdrawn. However, the end of the nearly two-decade-long operation leaves many questions unanswered, particularly regarding future counterterrorism operations, regional development, and our national image.
A Brief History of Modern U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan
On October 7th, 2001, following the September 11th attacks that killed 2,996 innocent civilians, the United States began its first official military operations in Afghanistan. The most recent withdrawal announcement comes nearly twenty years later, after more than 2,300 U.S. military deaths and over 35,000 Afghan civilian deaths. Although the Biden administration’s current goal will mark a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American forces has been many years in the making.
In 2010, President Obama pledged to reduce the number of U.S. forces beginning in July of 2011. In December of 2014, President Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan and the return of roughly 90% of troops stationed across Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the end of combat operations did not mark the end of the conflict for the United States. Former President Obama would later create a timetable in which the U.S. would be fully withdrawn by the end of 2016. The withdrawal, of course, was not completed within that timetable.
The U.S., since 2014, has maintained a variable but sizable force in Afghanistan that has served primarily in an advisory and support capacity. However, the prolonged withdrawal from 2011 to 2014 taught us several lessons about how a total withdrawal from Afghanistan might look.
A 2015 Spring Offensive by the Taliban initiated a phase of growing Taliban influence as they established strongholds with functional administrative systems– preparing for a possible return to national power and garnering political capital for possible peace talks. The growing concentration of Taliban forces in Afghanistan was further exacerbated by internal Pakistani military operations against various military groups, including the Taliban Movement in Pakistan (TTP).
The Afghan security forces left as the primary guard against the Taliban were predictably spread thin on resources and were often inadequately equipped to maintain sustained operations by themselves. That being said, Afghanistan and its international allies had mostly managed to hold back the Taliban and uphold the Afghan government.
The animus of the Taliban was partially redirected in 2015 by growing Islamic State power in Khorasan Province. The feud between ISIL and the Taliban helped to divert some of the Taliban’s focus away from Afghan forces.
By February 2020, the Trump administration negotiated a treaty with the Taliban in which the United States agreed to a complete withdrawal of troops by May 1st, 2021, so long as the Taliban upheld their obligations. Specifically, the treaty obligated the Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan would not be used as a launching base for attacks on America and implemented a permanent ceasefire.
The Biden administration has continued the withdrawal of troops initiated over a year ago, but under a slightly different timeline: Biden hopes to have all troops out by September 11th of this year.
The conditions for withdrawal are substantially different than in 2011 or even compared to those during the Spring Offensive of 2015. ISIL has been mostly defeated, removing a formidable adversary for the Taliban. The Taliban in Pakistan have seen a resurgence, possibly creating secure launching bases for incursions into Afghanistan. And now, the United States is withdrawing its remaining military forces, leaving the Afghan security forces largely to their own devices.
The New York Times has since reported that from May 1st to May 27th of this year, 26 Afghan military bases/outposts had surrendered to the Taliban. The Taliban have undoubtedly become emboldened by the U.S.'s recent withdrawals, even going so far as to threaten attacks against U.S. forces if they failed to fully withdraw by May 1st– the date specified by the treaty signed in 2020. However, the threat posed by the Taliban to the United States is not exclusively related to their own capacity for terrorism.
Numerous counterterrorism officials believe that the threat of Afghanistan serving as a base of operations for other terrorist organizations plotting against the U.S. is low in the near future but not something to discount in the long run. In the next several years, it may very well be in the Taliban’s interests to refrain from allowing other terrorist organizations to operate as they enter peace talks with the U.S.-aligned Afghan government. However, if the Taliban establishes firm control over Afghanistan in subsequent years, the dangers posed to the U.S. by emboldened, previously-restrained terrorist groups rise substantially.
A U.N. report from earlier this month declared that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” This report should serve as a clear warning that the Taliban may not be ready to live up to the obligations they agreed to in 2020 and that there may be a resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
What Should the U.S. Do Going Forward?
Seeing that Biden has been steadfast in his commitment to withdraw and that it would likely be a political mistake to reverse the decision, we must consider how the United States should proceed given that a total withdrawal is a near certainty.
The United States should, first and foremost, anticipate a possible Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Such anticipation should entail not only policies targeted towards Afghanistan itself but also policies that could curb the success of terror operations within the borders of the U.S. and its allies if organizations such as Al-Qaeda are able to re-establish themselves. However, a thorough list of all the domestic, national security policies that should be employed in anticipation of such an occurrence would require a much deeper analysis than what is discussed in this article. That being said, there are several practical policies the U.S. can and should adopt that would strengthen our standing in the region and bolster the Afghan government.
To avoid placing the entire burden of the fight against terror on our intelligence agencies or Afghan forces, the United States should be looking for ways to continue supporting Afghan security forces from outside the borders of Afghanistan.
Basing troops in nearby countries is certainly a viable option for keeping U.S. forces active in the region. According to Reuters, U.S. officials have explored the idea of establishing bases in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan but have not since reached any agreements with those countries. By establishing bases in either or both of these countries, the United States will be able to more readily engage in combat, rescue, and support missions in Afghanistan, possibly damaging the Taliban’s ability to engage in successful operations against Afghan security forces.
The Taliban have already threatened neighboring countries if they were to host U.S. forces, complicating the viability of such a proposal. However, threats have not always proven to be effective tools for the Taliban. In the past, threats had not discouraged countries such as Pakistan from cracking down on the Taliban and their affiliates (e.g., when Pakistan launched an offensive against various militant groups, including the Taliban, in Operation Zarb-e-Azb).
In addition to continued basing in the region, it is in the strategic interests of the United States to continue to support the Afghan people. This extends beyond simple humanitarian aid, although humanitarian aid is undoubtedly an essential part of shaping a positive image of the U.S. The United States must ensure that it is adhering to its obligations made to Afghans that aided our country in its war efforts.
More than 18,000 Afghans are currently awaiting decisions on their Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications. Many of these Afghans served as interpreters, accompanying U.S. forces across Afghanistan. Many of these applicants have seen numerous rejections over the past several years and have seen incredibly long waits to be approved. The Pentagon Press Secretary, John Kirby, claimed that the U.S. had invested some resources in the event of an immediate evacuation of Afghanistan. If deemed necessary, SIV applicants would be moved to a “third country” to be processed. However, the U.S. must ensure that if we evacuate interpreters, informants, and their families, they are not sent back to Afghanistan only to be killed by the Taliban.
If the United States falls short on its promises to the Afghans that aided the U.S. mission, we will only serve to weaken the U.S.’s image and garner support for the Taliban. Additionally, there could be negative implications for both future intelligence-gathering operations in Afghanistan and operations in other countries such as Iraq.
Lastly, the United States’ withdrawal may very well have signaled, to our allies and adversaries, a less interventionist and more war-weary foreign policy agenda. Although that is not all bad, there are several diplomatic considerations stemming from this.
The withdrawal, if not backed up by some form of humanitarian or military support for Afghanistan, undermines the idea that the U.S. had any vested interest in the Afghan people to begin with. Although it can be easily argued that the U.S. has not shown any interest in the Afghan people, at the very least, leaving Afghanistan without having been able to patch over the messes left behind is not the kind of image the United States should be painting if we want to depict our country as a ‘moral leader’ and deter radicalization in the region. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of reversing the withdrawal, nor do I seek to make claims as to the morality of the war itself. Such a conversation is outside the scope of this article. Rather, I seek to point out that we cannot afford to have our withdrawal from Afghanistan also be an abandonment of its people.
An additional diplomatic consideration is that the U.S. may have portrayed itself as wary of intervention. However, this is unlikely to overwhelm the fact that the U.S. has a continued military presence in almost every corner of the globe and that the U.S. has not shown any sign of fully withdrawing from Iraq. Nonetheless, the power vacuum that we may be leaving in Afghanistan offers unique opportunities to generate closer relationships with neighboring countries– India being one such country of particular interest.
Although twenty years of war may be coming to an end for the United States, a new chapter of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is just beginning, and Biden will have to show us if he is up to the task. The stakes are high, as nearly two decades of intervention have shown us the sheer intricacy of the web of terrorist organizations, foreign interests, and allegiances in the Middle East. Nuance, not haste, should determine the terms of our exit.