The end of the ‘Forever War’
THE multi-generational United States (US) War against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan is drawing to a close. The final phase of ending what several commentators refer to as the “forever war “formally began on 1st May, with the withdrawal of the remaining 13,000 US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops set for the end of summer 2021. At the height of the Afghanistan War, the combined NATO and partner forces numbered in excess of 130,000 troops.
Readers will recall that the War effort began in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on US soil on September 11th, 2001 (9/11). These attacks were masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, then leader of al Qaeda, who used Taliban- ruled Afghanistan as a safe-haven. The US, NATO and other partner nations then retaliated by launching attacks against the terrorist group and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
The War had global implications, far beyond Afghanistan. First, it marked the intensification of America’s global war on terror, particularly against radical Islamist terrorism. Second, this war on terror also formed part of the pretext for America’s subsequent invasion of Iraq. Third, the war on terror led to enhanced security at airports and seaports around the world. Fourth, America’s efforts to combat terrorism saw greater scrutiny of global financial transactions in a bid to place a chokehold on terrorist financing.
Whether the US achieved its objectives in Afghanistan is open to debate. The War came at the cost of the lives of over 2,300 US personnel, more than 60,000 members of the Afghan security services and over 40,000 civilian deaths. An additional 20,000 US personnel and countless civilians were also wounded since the War began. Millions more have also been displaced inside Afghanistan or to Pakistan, Iran and Europe.
The War has also come at a cost to the US Treasury. Through the end of 2020, according to the Pentagon, the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have cost $824.9 billion.
Furthermore, in his speech to Congress, President Biden basically conceded that after nearly 20 years of war, America’s longest abroad, the US military was unable to transform Afghanistan into a modern, stable democracy.
Critics would use the human casualties, billions spent and the lingering political instability to Afghanistan to suggest that the war effort was futile. However, there is another side to this argument.
Writing in the New York Times on 28 April 2021, David Zucchino noted that new schools, hospitals and public facilities were built in Afghanistan by the US. Moreover, according to Zucchino, thousands of girls, barred from education under Taliban rule, attended school. Zucchino also wrote that women, largely confined to their homes by the Taliban, went to college, joined the work force and served in Parliament and government.
Importantly, the US and its partners in Afghanistan were successful in disrupting the capabilities of both al Qaeda and the Taliban, thereby limiting their ability to carry out the kinds of attacks like what occurred on 9/11. In light of this, while one can agree that the Afghan people should have full autonomy over their country, the timing of the US withdrawal and uncertainty about its role in a post-US Afghanistan should draw concerns.
On the day that US troop withdrawal formally started, Taliban forces launched a rocket attack on an airfield. This is likely a sign of things to come when the Americans leave. In this regard, there is a real risk that Afghanistan could descend further into violence. There is also the risk that the trio of the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist organisation could strengthen their positions in Afghanistan, thereby posing an even greater threat to the rest of the world.
Hopefully, the US and its partners will not forsake the Afghan people when troops leave. The people deserve to live in a prosperous, stable and free country after decades of war and violence which preceded America’s involvement in the country. There is also a systemic interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorism which is a threat to all the world.