KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – After 20 years America is ending its “war forever” in Afghanistan.
Announcing a firm withdrawal deadline, President Joe Biden interrupted the long debate, even within the U.S. military, over whether the time was right. Starting Saturday, the last 2,500 to 3,500 remaining American troops will begin to leave, to be completely eliminated by September 11 at the latest.
Another debate will probably last much longer: was it worth it?
Since 2001, tens of thousands of Afghans and 2,442 American soldiers have been killed, millions of Afghans driven from their homes and billions of dollars spent on war and reconstruction. As the departure begins, The Associated Press examines the mission and what it has accomplished.
FIGHT AGAINST TERROR
In the first days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the mission seemed clear: to track down and punish the perpetrators.
The United States determined that al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, planned the attack from the security of Afghanistan, protected by its radical Taliban leadership. At the time, the Taliban were a pariah government, under UN sanctions and vilified in the West for their domination by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Until September 11, the United States had observed Afghanistan from afar, occasionally asking the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and once in 1998, firing two cruise missiles at an Al-Qaida base in the eastern Afghanistan.
America was now leading an invasion, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, with the mission of eliminating the Taliban and destroying Al-Qaida.
Washington turned to the only allies in Afghanistan it could – a collection of warlords, most of whom were former U.S.-backed Mujahedin in the 1980s in the fight against the invasion of the ‘Soviet Union. Gathering around the United States after September 11, NATO joined the coalition.
Weeks after the invasion and aerial bombardment, the US-led coalition pushed the Taliban into submission and ousted them from power. Its leaders have fled, its fighters have lost control of the whole nation. Al-Qaida also fled underground, crossing into neighboring Pakistan.
The hunt for Bin Laden lasted 10 years. Eventually, he was followed to his hiding place in Pakistan, barely 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Islamabad. A team of US Navy Seals entered under cover of darkness and killed him.
But during the interceding decade America and NATO had been drawn into a vastly expanded mission. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld first said America was not in Afghanistan to build a nation. It would change.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it looked away from Afghanistan. He left it to the old warlords, preoccupied with wealth and power. The first post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai, raised the idea of talks with the Taliban to achieve peace, and the crushed militants gave signals that they wanted to find a compromise.
But US officials have blocked all negotiations with the Taliban, believing the insurgents could be destroyed militarily.
Instead, the militants reappeared in a protracted insurgency, and the United States found itself pouring money and manpower to help the Afghan government fight back and rebuild the ravaged nation. by war. With the inundation of billions of dollars, corruption has only increased in the US-backed government, only getting worse over the years.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida’s ability to strike the United States and the West has been severely damaged. But the group has spread to branches in several countries fighting in insurgencies.
Biden explained his decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, saying U.S. security concerns have evolved.
“Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is degraded in Iraq – in Afghanistan,” he said, arguing that the terrorist threat has “metastasized” into a global phenomenon, not to be fought with thousands of soldiers on the ground in a country. but with new technology. The United States, he said, must be liberated to fight the most sophisticated challenges of the 21st century, including competition from Russia and China.
Regarding the situation in Afghanistan, he said he did not see how a continued US military presence would lead to a turnaround. “When will it be a good time to go?” One more year, two more years, ten more years? ” he said.
“’Not now’ – that’s how we got here. ‘ “
WHAT NOW FOR AFGHANISTAN?
The United States and NATO are leaving behind an Afghanistan that is at least half-ruled directly or indirectly by the Taliban – despite billions invested in training and arming Afghan forces to fight them. Riddled with corruption and linked to regional warlords, the US-backed government is widely distrusted by many Afghans.
Washington and its international allies are putting great pressure on the government and the Taliban to reach a peace deal. The hope is that both sides realize that military victory is impossible and that peace together is the only way forward.
The best-case scenario is some sort of government including the Taliban that can pave the way for the development of a new constitutional system for the future, including some form of elections.
The worst-case scenario is that the peace talks fail and Afghanistan is plunged into a new chapter in its decades of civil war. This new phase could be more brutal than ever, with not only the Taliban but the rest, several warlords and armed factions in the country fighting for power.
The last 20 years since the ousting of the Taliban have unquestionably seen gains for the Afghans. But they are fragile and risk being wiped out as Americans move away – whether wasted under a new government or crushed by continued war.
Girls have the right to an education, which was banned under the Taliban. Yet at least 3.6 million children, the majority of whom are girls, are out of school, according to UNICEF.
Women work and are in Parliament. Their voices are strong but the Afghan parliament has still not been able to pass the violence against women bill because religious conservatives dominate. The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security has consistently ranked Afghanistan as one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman.
Before the 2001 war, the Taliban had eradicated opium production in Afghanistan, according to United Nations figures. Today, it produces more opium than all other opium-producing countries combined, although the United States is spending millions to eradicate drug production.
The opium industry in 2019, latest figures available, earned between $ 1.2 billion and $ 2.1 billion, exceeding the value of the country’s legal exports, according to John Sopko, the watchdog of the US government on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. More than $ 14 million of that went into the coffers of the Taliban, which tax drug movements across the country.
Despite billions in humanitarian and reconstruction aid from the United States, more than half of the population of 36 million live below the poverty line set by the World Bank of $ 1.90 a day – and millions others barely live above this level. Unemployment is at 40%. The UN and the Red Cross say nearly half of all Afghan children face the danger of hunger.
The majority of Afghans have little hope for their future, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
“Afghanistan is on the verge of failed statehood and is sure to fall into the category immediately after the withdrawal of foreign forces in the absence of a better political arrangement,” said Torek Farhadi, analyst politician and former government adviser. “This is the reality of Afghanistan.”