Written by Robert MacFarlane
US President Joe Biden announced this week that troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan beginning 1st May, saying in a speech outside the White House, “Its time to end the forever war”. The deadline to complete the withdrawal is 11th September this year, exactly 20 years since the terror attack on the World Trade center that first sparked military action. The war was officially announced by then President George W. Bush on 7th October 2001, making it America’s longest ever war. The operation, coined ‘enduring freedom’, was presented as a vital step in the war of terror. However, over the years it has proven to be a largely fruitless endeavour on both sides. According to White House officials, former president Obama commented, “it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily”.
At the time, support for military action was almost unanimous. On the 14th of September 2001, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force(AUMF) was signed, giving presidents executive powers to wage war overseas. Only lawmaker Barbara Lee of California opposed the move and one week after the events of 9/11, it was invoked to authorise action in Afghanistan. The document, containing just 60 words, has been officially cited 37 times to justify military action according to the Congressional Research Service. It was used 18 times by the Bush administration and 19 times under President Obama. When Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in 2017, it was unclear as to whether this was justified under the AUMF. Steve Vald, a CNN legal analyst and national security law professor, said “There’s just no argument that the 2001 AUMF authorizes force against the Assad regime“. Following the strike, senators decided they would not hold a debate on new war authorisation legislation. Perhaps that time has now come.
Senators both Democrat and Republican have weighed in on the withdrawal decision, creating a mixed bag of responses. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, argued withdrawing troops could embolden the Taliban and destabilise the country. Following Biden’s announcement, she tweeted, “Although this decision was made in coordination w/our allies, the U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave w/o verifiable assurances of a secure future”. On the other hand, Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren praised the move, saying in a statement, “Year after year, military leaders told Congress and the American people that we were finally turning the corner in Afghanistan, but ultimately we were only turning in a vicious circle”.
Just as Republicans were divided over Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria last year, the topic of US occupation continues to divide republicans now, with Liza Cheney of Wyoming presenting the same argument as Jeanne Shaheen. “Withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 will only embolden the very jihadists who attacked our homeland on that day 20 years ago.”, she said in a statement. Many look to the example of the rise of ISIS in Iraq resulting from the power vacuum caused by a reduction in US troops, as reinforcement for the argument against the withdrawal. Conversely, Senator Ted Cruz, usually a staunch critic of Biden, said to CNN he was “glad the troops were coming home”. According to data from CNN, more than 2,400 US troops and 1,100 NATO allied personnel have died during the war in Afghanistan. The number of US troops stationed in the country peaked in 2009 when Obama sent an additional 47,000 troops. This figure is currently at an all-time low of 2,500.
After the initial retaliation against international terror network al Qaeda, the war in Afghanistan became a drawn-out affair to uphold human rights and ensure peaceful coexistence between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Although this was to the end of preventing the further rise of terror groups like al Qaeda in the region. This echoes a cold war style foreign policy, whereby the US seeks to exercise self-defence, and protect its citizens at home and abroad. After all, US involvement in Afghanistan dates to 1979 when Ronald Reagan decided to fund the militias fighting the soviets, who had recently invaded the country. Nine years later, the soviets withdrew and Afghanistan was left to its own devices. It was during this time that the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political and military organisation, rose to prominence, eventually controlling much of Afghanistan by 2001.
Three different presidents have presided over the war in Afghanistan, and their actions give us an insight into what could be in store regarding Biden’s foreign policy. The withdrawal announcement could be a signal of wider military cutbacks in the years to come, something that will come to a head next year with the defence budget. The war has cost over $2 trillion of taxpayers money. Furthermore, the decision not to fund the Afghan government to help deter military action by the Taliban, may also indicate a more ‘hands off’ approach to US foreign policy moving forward. A key distinction between Biden’s withdrawal and the withdrawal originally planned by the Trump administration for 1st May, concerns the presence of counter terrorism forces. Trump had originally agreed with the Taliban that the withdrawal would be complete by this earlier date, on the condition that the Taliban would uphold women’s rights and break with al Qaeda. While Biden indicated during his campaign he would keep some counter terrorism forces in Afghanistan, the withdrawal will now include them. This too, points towards an America that intends to focus its resources on domestic issues, at least for the immediate future.
The US now seeks to use political diplomacy to leverage a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, a report published by the US Intelligence Community on 9th April says, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support”. As a result, concerns still remain about the future of the country. Uncertainty also remains as to a deadline for diplomatic talks, though many have speculated this may coincide with the 11th September date for the withdrawal of US troops.
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