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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Explained: How America’s troop pullout by September 11 closes its Afghanistan chapter

The longest-running conflict in US history, the war in Afghanistan has led to the deaths of nearly 2,400 American troops, and cost the country around $2 trillion.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 15, 2021 8:06:18 am
In this file photo, American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

US President Joe Biden is set to announce the departure of American troops from Afghanistan by September 11 this year, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the attacks on US soil in 2001, multiple reports said.

The longest-running conflict in US history, the war in Afghanistan has led to the deaths of nearly 2,400 American troops, and cost the country around $2 trillion. Former President Donald Trump, who lost reelection to Biden in November last year, had set the withdrawal deadline for the US on May 1 this year– a date that the US will miss by a few months.

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The decision, first reported by The Washington Post, has divided US experts, with supporters insisting that the US should move beyond its ill-thought war of two decades, and opponents expressing fears that America’s departure could lead Afghanistan slipping into a bloody civil war.

What has the Biden administration decided to do?

After contemplating for months since winning the election, Biden has decided that US troops should not remain in Afghanistan long after the May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban.

The troop pullout is now expected to begin before May 1, and will conclude before the symbolic date of September 11, reportedly the “absolute” deadline. A senior Biden administration official while briefing reporters said that the Taliban “will be met with a forceful response” if they attack US troops during the withdrawal phase.

As per reports, the US military establishment had insisted that any withdrawal from Afghanistan should be “conditions-based”, meaning that the US should be able to re-engage if the internationally recognised government in Kabul is under threat of losing control of the country.

Biden is said to have overruled the suggestion, and has gone ahead to decide that US military presence in the country should end no matter what, bringing into action his long-held beliefs related to America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

In 2009, as Vice-President under Barack Obama, Biden had strongly opposed expanding US military presence in the country, and maintained that its goal should be restricted to counterterrorism missions. But despite his arguments, Washington went on to increase its number of troops from 36,000 in 2009 to almost 1 lakh in 2010. It was only after the killing of Osama bin Laden by a SEAL team in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in 2012 that the US began winding down its presence in Afghanistan.

The decision to withdraw is based on data gathered by American intelligence, which suggest that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups do not pose an immediate threat to strike the United States from Afghanistan, the New York Times reported.

Currently, about 2,500 US troops remain in the country, part of the overall NATO presence of 9,600.

So, what kind of US influence will remain in Afghanistan?

The Biden administration is now expected to reposition its troops in the region to maintain a watch on Afghanistan and the Taliban, although it is unclear how it would effectively be able to do so without direct military involvement.

The new withdrawal date, September 11, has been selected to underscore why American troops were placed in Afghanistan in the first place.

The US, however, will not withdraw all its troops– some will remain to provide diplomatic security, which is a standard practice.

The NYT report said that the US could in the future rely on secretive Special Operations, Pentagon contractors and intelligence operatives to stem major threats from terror organisations such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

What does this mean for the Afghanistan government?

The government of President Ashraf Ghani would undoubtedly face a tough task ahead. Already over the past year, the Taliban have launched multiple attacks to bring more territory under their control, and US intelligence suggests that they are expected to make further military gains.

Experts say that the possibility of the Taliban being able to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government is low, as the Taliban believe that they can triumph militarily.

The Taliban have already said that they would not be attending a new round of talks to decide Afghanistan’s future scheduled in Turkey later this month.

What have been the reactions to Biden’s decision?

Critics of the decision fear that it could lead to a catastrophe for Afghanistan, suggesting that it may lead to a repeat of the 1975 Fall of Saigon– when the capital of the US-backed South Vietnam fell to Communist-ruled North Vietnam two years after the withdrawal of American military presence of 19 years. The city’s capture (it was later renamed Ho Chi Minh City) signalled the end of the Vietnam War, and the North consolidated its hold over the entire country in the next few months.

There are fears that the Taliban could be able to do the same after the US pullout in September.

Senior Republican Party leader Mitch McConnell criticised the decision saying, “Precipitously withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake. It is a retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished, an abdication of American leadership”.

However, others suggest that the withdrawal would help Washington move past its “9/11 fixation”, in which counterterrorism had remained the most important foreign policy objective. An exit from the country would mean that the US could devote greater energy in dealing with China and Russia, as well as concentrate on Biden’s domestic policy objectives.

They also insist that a “conditions-based” approach towards ending troop involvement would have meant that the US remained in Afghanistan forever.

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A timeline of the US’s war in Afghanistan

November 13, 2001 — The Taliban flee Kabul for Kandahar as the US-led coalition marches into the Afghan capital with the Northern Alliance.

December 5, 2001 – The Bonn Agreement is signed in Bonn, Germany, giving the majority of power to the Northern Alliance’s key players and strengthening the warlords who had ruled between 1992 and 1996.

December 7, 2001 — Mullah Omar leaves Kandahar and the Taliban regime officially collapses.

December 13, 2001 — Karzai arrives in Kabul; contrary to the Bonn Agreement, militias loyal to warlords also enter the Afghan capital.

December 22, 2001 — Karzai is sworn in as chairman of a 29-member governing council established under the Bonn Agreement.

2004 and 2009 — General elections are held and Karzai is elected president for two consecutive terms, the limit under the Afghan constitution.

April 5, 2014 — Deeply flawed election results in the two front-runners, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, both claiming victory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates a power-sharing deal for a so-called Unity Government, with Ghani serving as president and Abdullah as chief executive.

December 8, 2014 — American and NATO troops formally end their combat mission, transitioning to a support and training role though President Barack Obama had authorized U.S. forces to carry out operations against Taliban and al-Qaida targets.

2015-2018 — The Taliban surge further, staging near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and U.S. forces; scores of civilians die in the crossfire. An Islamic State group affiliate emerges in the east; the Taliban seize control of nearly half the country.

September 2018 — Seeking to fulfill his election promise to bring U.S. troops home, President Donald Trump appoints veteran Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as negotiator with the Taliban.

2018-2019 — Zalmay engages in on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban, mainly in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar where the insurgents maintain a political office. The Taliban refuse to negotiate with the Kabul government

September 9, 2019 — After a particularly intense escalation in Taliban attacks, including a Kabul bombing that killed a U.S. soldier, Trump scraps talks with the Taliban.

September 28, 2019 — Presidential elections are held but official results are not known for months.

November 24, 2019 — Trump visits U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving, says the Taliban want to make a deal and signals the Qatar negotiations are back on.

February 15, 2020 — Washington says a temporary “reduction in violence” has been agreed upon with the Taliban as the first step toward a final peace deal.

February 18, 2020 — Afghanistan’s election commission declares Ghani the official winner of September elections; his rival Abdullah refuses to recognize the results and instead declares himself the winner.

February 29, 2020 — The U.S. and the Taliban sign a deal in Doha, Qatar, laying out the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan; the deal also envisions intra-Afghan talks on a future political road map.

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