The cost of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan
The full withdrawal of US-led coalition forces from Afghanistan puts the country’s stability into question, as the Taliban prepares to claim victory in the twenty-year conflict.
U.S. President Joseph Biden declared on April fifteenth that military personnel assisting the Afghan National Army (ANA) and all associated forces would withdraw completely from Afghanistan by September eleventh. Following Biden’s statement, the United Kingdom and Australia announced a troop draw down–signaling a wider Coalition departure from the war-torn region.
The withdrawal announcement raises questions over the future of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy and ANA’s war against the Taliban. Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, the Taliban–a collection of Pashtun students led by Islamist extremists–controlled three quarters of the country from 1996–2001. Governing Afghanistan under an Islamic Emirate unrecognized by the United Nations, Taliban’s totalitarian rule included mass repression of women, ethnic minorities, and imposition of ultraconservative religious governance via public executions, public lashings, and other atrocities.
Under the Pashtun traditional tenet of Nanawatai, the Taliban provided a sanctuary for al-Qaeda during this period, allowing militants to operate and conduct terror attacks abroad. Al-Qaeda used the country as a springboard for operations such as the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998-killing over two hundred people. They code-named these operations after two Islamic holy sites the Ka’bah in Mecca and al-Aqsa in Jerusalem–al-Qaeda sought to initiate a “holy war” against the United States.
These attacks put the organization and by extension Afghanistan under International spotlight. The United States launched a series of cruise missile strikes within Afghanistan and placed Osama Bin Laden–al-Qaeda’s leader–on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list. The organization went into hiding in Afghanistan but remained on both the US’ radar and, through subsequent UNSC resolutions–1214 (1998), 1267 (1999) and 1333 (2000) on the issue, a priority by the international community.
Al-Qaeda then initiated the deadliest series of attacks on US soil in the country’s history. Operatives hijacked four commercial airliners and suicidally flew them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and attempted to fly a plane into the White House.
2,977 innocent people from over ten different nations lost their lives in coordinated acts of mass-murder. These events set the stage for the global war on terror as countries across the world condemned the attacks and provided support to the United States.
Al-Qaeda by then had entrenched itself in Afghanistan by providing funding, training, and foreign fighters who served as reinforcements for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. This support escalated to the point where al-Qaeda was tasked with a major “decapitation” strike.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary Northern Alliance commander and longtime thorn in the Taliban’s side, was assassinated just two days before September 11, 2001 by Tunisian suicide bombers. This operation was outsourced to al-Qaeda because their ranks included educated men who could successfully pose as foreign journalists intending to interview Massoud. That was how the Lion of Panjshir lowered his guard just long enough for the assassins to detonate a bomb hidden inside a camera.
The Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden or expel al-Qaeda after repeated requests from the United Nations and then rejected an ultimatum given by US President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks to stop providing sanctuary to terrorists.
The US-led Coalition’s invasion of Afghanistan dislodged a totalitarian state sponsor of terrorism. This opened the door for Afghans to retake control of the country’s future. Operation Enduring Freedom–the first in the Coalition’s operations–was initiated in October of 2001 to eradicate al-Qaeda and enable the Northern Alliance with International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to expel the Taliban from Kabul. This did not, however, fully remove either group as both maintained a low-level insurgency, which gradually escalated until the new Afghan government and ISAF found themselves on the defensive in 2006.
Developments made in the realm of the economy, infrastructure, healthcare, education and women’s rights have been the major positive byproducts of Coalition assistance in rebuilding the state.
For example: According to the World Bank’s 2020, ‘Afghanistan’s Development Gains: Progress and Challenges’ report, literacy rates for general public in the country increased from 18% in 2002 to 43% as of 2018, with youth literacy rates increasing from 47% to 65%. The proportion of secondary-age children enrolled in secondary education increased from 13% to 54% (2003–2017) with female enrollment from 6% to 39%. Women’s participation in society is the most significant development, as more females participate in all levels of society, especially governance with around 27% of women holding parliamentary seats.
The withdrawal of US-led coalition forces threatens to overturn progress made as the Taliban claims victory in wake of a US retreat. The Taliban continues to conduct attacks at an escalating rate against government forces. Their ties with al-Qaeda remain as demonstrated with operatives being active in the country. For example: The ANA recently killed a senior leader for al-Qaeda named Hossam Abdul al-Raouf in the Andar district during a raid.
The Taliban show clear signs that it intends to reestablish an Islamic Emirate over Afghanistan–something that cannot be allowed to happen. 19% of the country remains under its control, well around 47% remains disputed. The balance is struck in favor of the Afghan government now but for how long will this remain?
US and coalition forces are leaving within the next couple months with September being the final deadline for full withdrawal. From now until that month there are concerns from the intelligence community, senior ranking US officials such as Gen. Mark Milley and the Afghan government that the Taliban, and by extension al-Qaeda, will increase attacks and regain territory. If the Taliban regain significant territory, such as Kabul, then the country is highly likely to return to a pre-2001 state of affairs along with the state becoming a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Most Afghans want to maintain the progress made in the last twenty years. According to the Asia foundation’s 2019 survey of the Afghan people, 65% of Afghans would not support any leader that accepted a peace settlement that would jeopardize women’s education, ability to work or if the central government last territory. Maintaining the sovereignty of Afghanistan and the agency of the Afghan people is not just important for the security and stability of the region but for the Afghan people too.
This cannot be ceded to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.
Anthony Avice Du Buisson is an Australian-based freelance writer who writes on politics, foreign policy and the Middle East with a focus on minority rights. He has written for online syndications such as The Region, The Jerusalem Post and Areo Magazine. You can find him on twitter: @StoicViper