The longest war in American history has gone on for more than 19 years. The U.S. and its NATO-led allies announced the official conclusion of their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014. With the country remaining in violent turmoil, plans for the exit of the coalition have been repeatedly put off. In the latest delay, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to push back a promised withdrawal of U.S. troops from May 1 to Sept. 11. The date will mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that precipitated the American invasion that ousted the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who once ruled the country and have reclaimed significant patches of it. 

The Situation

In delaying the troop removal, Biden risks Taliban-led retaliation for breaking an agreement his predecessor’s administration struck with the Taliban to leave sooner. But military and diplomatic leaders had warned a rushed withdrawal could destabilize the country. U.S. forces make up a quarter of the remaining 10,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been encouraging peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. But since the discussions started in September, violence — including targeted killings of journalists, civil society members and politicians — has continued, worsening in the capital, Kabul. Despite the U.S. having spent an estimated $900 billion on the Afghan conflict, the Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted from power. The group controls or contests more than half the country. The Afghan military, which receives training and advice from the U.S. and its allies, has been hampered by insufficient air power and heavy combat losses and desertions.

The Background

In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out of Afghanistan, after a decade-long occupation that had made the country a front line in the Cold War. The U.S., which actively supported the Soviets’ opponents, including radical Islamist factions, also disengaged. Bloody chaos followed until the Taliban seized Kabul from the feuding warlords who had all but leveled it. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule and gave the terrorist group al-Qaeda a base. In 2001, after the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his group’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. When bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on a separate war in Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined the coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, led Obama to start winding down the American troop presence. Doubts that the Afghan military could stand on its own prompted him to leave the last of them in place when he turned the presidency over to Donald Trump in January 2017. Within a year, Trump had deployed an additional 3,500 U.S. troops to the country at the Pentagon’s urging. In 2020, frustrated by the Taliban’s tenacity, he struck his deal with the group and began another drawdown. 

The Argument

There’s widespread agreement in the U.S. that the war against the Taliban can’t be won militarily. There are divisions, however, over how fast and under what conditions the U.S. should exit the fight. Some analysts say it’s important to first secure a political agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban in order to reduce the chances of the latter sweeping to power and reinstituting strict Islamic law. For his part, Biden has consistently argued that U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be focused on protecting the U.S. from terrorism. In its agreement with the U.S., the Taliban pledged that it would not allow al-Qaeda or other groups to use the country to threaten the security of the U.S. or its allies. Skeptics argue that such an assurance from the Taliban is meaningless. 

The Reference Shelf

• Quarterly reports by the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction include a section on security.

• A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on Afghanistan reviews issues for U.S. policy; another looks specifically at a drawdown of forces.  

• The International Crisis Group analyzes the choices for Biden’s government.   

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