End of an Error? The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

By Joseph Eyre

In February 2020, after many rounds of fraught and secretive negotiations, the United States and the Taliban finally reached an agreement and signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” After 19 years of war, the agreement provides for the complete withdrawal of US and allied troops by May 1st 2021, which is fast approaching. While the new administration and NATO appear to have deferred a final decision on this, a withdrawal would mark the end of the longest continuous war the United States has ever fought. With over 150,000 deaths in total and $2 trillion in spending by the US alone, the human and economic costs have been enormous. Now that the conflict seems to be winding down, it is important to reflect on the magnitude of America’s ‘Forever War’.

Referred to as the ‘graveyard of empires,’ Afghanistan has a long history of ensnaring great powers in conflicts resulting from failed regime change. The defeated British Empire withdrew after a 3 year war in 1842 and the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 after a protracted and bloody conflict that lasted 9 years. It was in the chaotic aftermath of that conflict that the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentallist military and political movement, rose to power.

For the United States the war in Afghanistan effectively began with the attack on the World Trade Centre by al-Qaeda, who were then based in Afghanistan. Only 9 days later, after experiencing the deadliest terror attack in history, George W. Bush addressed a Joint Session of Congress to commemorate the attack and to deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban. He demanded that they “close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, and hand over every terrorist, and every person in their support structure, to appropriate authorities.” 

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The ultimatum was rejected the following day and, within three weeks, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ (the official name for the invasion of Afghanistan) had begun. The invasion was over quickly, and was fought primarily by the US, UK and Northern Alliance (a military alliance of Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban). By mid November the Northern Alliance had taken Kabul and Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership had retreated to the mountainous regions of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Initially, the international forces present in Afghanistan focused solely on securing the city of Kabul. But in April 2002 President Bush made a speech at the Virginia Military Institute indicating his desire for a larger commitment to Afghanistan. He referred frequently to George C. Marshall, the man largely responsible for the Marshall Plan – the vast foreign aid programme delivered by the US to rebuild Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. He drew comparisons with Afghanistan, stating that “by helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall … [he] knew that our military victory … had to be followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings.”

The result was the gradual expansion of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) mission to cover the whole of Afghanistan. Consisting initially of the UK and US, this coalition of countries eventually comprised 51 nations and, at its height, deployed a force of 130,000 soldiers.

Counting the Costs

But after 19 years of conflict, and despite the grandiose invocation of the Marshall Plan, Afghanistan is a long way from being free from the “evil” which president Bush referred to. The Taliban still control large swathes of territory and their insurgency has shown few signs of letting up since the invasion in 2001. The UN estimates that they were responsible for 45% of the 8820 civilian casualties in 2020 alone (3035 deaths and 5785 injuries). In fact, experts now consider that the Taliban is stronger than it has been at any point since the 2001 invasion, and they make no secret of their aspirations for further control once international forces leave.

Unfortunately, the Taliban are not the only contributors to the high civilian casualties. Government security forces were responsible for 22% of those in 2020 (674 deaths and 624 injuries) and international military forces were responsible for 1%. This figure may seem low but it still represents 120 casualties in a single year, of which 89 were killed. These figures are surprisingly higher than during the period where international troop numbers were much higher, and the reason for this is twofold. In 2017, the US relaxed its rules of engagement and also increased the quantity of airstrikes. This increased reliance on airstrikes to combat insurgents and gain leverage in negotiations resulted in 700 civilian airstrike deaths in 2019, more than any year since the start of the war.

Despite the consistently high death toll, the situation in Afghanistan has improved in some aspects. For example, the nation’s burden of disease (a metric developed to measure death and loss of health due to diseases, injuries and risk factors) has reduced by roughly a third since 2001. Likewise, life expectancy in 2019 was up to 64.8 from 56.3 in 2001. 

Economic indicators, such as a per capita income over three times higher than in 2001, are similarly promising. Infrastructure improvements have also been a particular area of success; millions have gained access to potable water, major roads now connect the country’s five major cities and electricity provision is on the up.

Progress has evidently been made over the last two decades, albeit slowly and at enormous costs. But while a withdrawal may mark the end of the war for the US and its allies, it certainly doesn’t mark the end of the war for Afghanistan. The modest improvements to the lives of the Afghan people could be reversed far more easily than they were achieved. Whether or not the Afghan government and domestic security forces can successfully contain the Taliban, violence will likely continue at an enormous scale and any further progress will be slow.
The United States, like the Soviet Union and British Empire before it, is facing the prospect of leaving Afghanistan defeated, having expended substantial resources for limited results. This is not yet a certainty, however, and whether or not this time is different will take many more years to be seen.

This report was compiled by Joseph Eyre. You can find Joseph on Twitter here.