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As US leaves Afghanistan, history suggests it may struggle to stay out

Joe Biden has decided the time has come to leave Afghanistan, despite the risk that future developments could suck the United States back in.

By: New York Times |
August 11, 2021 2:25:52 pm
American soldiers at an outpost near Kamu, Afghanistan on Oct. 18, 2008. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Written by Ben Hubbard

After grueling years of watching United States forces fight and die in a faraway land, the president appealed to growing war weariness among voters and brought the troops home.

Not long after, an extremist group stormed through areas the Americans had left, killing civilians, seizing power and sweeping away billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. efforts to leave behind a stable nation.

That’s what happened after President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011: the jihadis of the Islamic State group established an extremist emirate, prompting the United States to dispatch its military, yet again, to flush them out.

It is also now a possible scenario in Afghanistan, where President Joe Biden’s order to shut down America’s longest war has led to swift advances by the Taliban, the same extremist group the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The challenge of achieving U.S. interests in complex and distant societies like Afghanistan and Iraq has bedeviled policymakers from both parties since President George W. Bush declared the “war on terror” nearly two decades ago.

In the years since, even how those interests are defined has swung wildly, driven at some times by a desire to spread democracy and human rights and at others by exasperation that costly efforts by the United States have borne so little fruit.

The result, according to some analysts and former U.S. officials, is a perception among both friends and enemies that you can never guarantee how long the United States will stick around.

“In my experience, we just have a lack of strategic patience as a nation and as a government,” said Ryan Crocker, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan. “Sadly, in the region, our adversaries have come to count on us not staying the course.”

Biden has decided the time has come to leave Afghanistan, despite the risk that future developments could suck the United States back in.

That policy has come under pressure in recent days, as Taliban forces seized six provincial capitals and exposed the weakness of the Afghan forces meant to take over after the United States completes its withdrawal at the end of the month.

During their advance, the Taliban have been accused of using assassinations and bombings to subvert talks aimed at creating a power-sharing government. Rights activists fear they will reimpose restrictions on women, barring them from working and moving around independently. And security experts warn that terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State could use Afghanistan to plot new attacks abroad.

Biden has given no indication that he might change course, his position backed by polls suggesting that most Americans support the withdrawal.

But casting a shadow over the pullout is the ominous precedent of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, when Biden was vice president.

At the time, al-Qaida in Iraq had been largely routed by the United States and Iraqi forces. But the Iraqi government was rife with corruption, its military was ill-prepared to ensure security, and its society was divided by sectarianism that was exacerbated by U.S.-backed politicians.

Two years later, after taking advantage of the chaos of Syria’s civil war to establish a foothold there, Islamic State jihadis roared back into Iraq, seizing cities and establishing a so-called caliphate.

Shocked by the group’s violence and worried that it would inspire terrorist attacks around the world, the United States military returned, at the head of an international coalition that worked with local forces to rout the jihadis.

“You cannot but compare the two cases,” said Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, of Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan today.

Many factors that contributed to the Islamic State’s rise are present in Afghanistan, he said, adding that policymakers would be naive to think that such problems would not eventually spill over borders.

“Even if the U.S. wants to disengage, the rise of forces such as ISIS, such as the Taliban, forces that are radical and able to destabilize the whole region, they will eventually affect U.S. interests,” Hasan said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.

The United States has been involved in Afghanistan since Bush ordered an invasion in 2001 aimed at disrupting terrorist groups and toppling the Taliban government.

But Qaida and Taliban leaders escaped to neighboring Pakistan, and in 2003 the United States announced the end of major combat operations and shifted, with international partners, to helping Afghanistan emerge as a pro-Western democracy.

Despite some successes, corruption in the Afghan government sapped development, neighboring powers backed proxy forces inside the country, and the Taliban reconstituted as an insurgency. Obama increased and decreased troop numbers, and President Donald Trump started negotiations with the Taliban, bypassing the Afghan government.

After entering the White House, Biden announced the withdrawal, arguing essentially that if all the United States had done so far had not fixed Afghanistan, nothing would.

Many Americans share that view. Others worry it sets a dangerous precedent.

The U.S. withdrawal after negotiating with the Taliban amounted to “an effective American surrender,” said Crocker, the former ambassador.

“The Taliban can now present themselves as the Islamic movement that defeated the great Satan, and that is going to resonate internationally,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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