Twenty years ago the US launched a war on Afghanistan. Four presidents, $2 trillion, and more than 200,000 Afghan lives later, the longest war in US history may finally be coming to an end without anything the US can call a victory and nothing Afghans can call stability or a future.
So what was this war even about? How did it start in the first place? Is it really ending? What will it mean for Afghans? And what accounts for the hawkish backlash to ending a war that serves no apparent purpose?
THE HAWKS WANT TO STAY FOREVER
President Joe Biden sent shockwaves throughout Washington when he announced the US would be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home,” he said.
His liberal base is trying to play it up as proof of Biden’s progressive credentials, but it’s more complicated than that. Meanwhile, the chorus of war hawks predictably lost it.
Max Boot, who never met an American war that he didn’t like (nor one he wanted to end), wrote two op-eds warning against withdrawal. The hawkish Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen expressed fears that “a US withdrawal will create a vacuum in the country that China, Russia or Iran will fill.” Retired general and former National Security Advisor HR McMaster, one of the “soldier scholars” whom Americans revere, also condemned the withdrawal as “an extraordinary reversal of morality” that America is “going to look back on with shame.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called Biden’s withdrawal “dumber than dirt,” warning that “the result of this decision today by President Biden is to cancel an insurance policy that in my view would prevent another 9/11.” Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, two former secretaries of state, both expressed opposition to the withdrawal, with Rice reportedly warning that the US would likely have to return to Afghanistan.
This sudden concern for the fate of Afghan women was echoed across mainstream media, with Republican Senator John Barrasso telling MSNBC, “This is going to turn the clock back on the women of Afghanistan, girls trying to go to school to get an education will once again be killed.”
ZAL’S TALIBAN COUP
The end to the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is long overdue, but the way it is being done will likely only perpetuate the suffering of Afghans.
One longtime expert described the deal as so intrusive and imposing it treats Afghanistan as a colony of the US.
Biden is implementing the February 2020 deal struck in Doha between Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US State Department, and Mullah Baradar, the Taliban Deputy’s Commander for Political Affairs. It was called the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, although nobody believes it will bring peace to a country at war for over forty years. At the same time, the US also signed a separate deal with the Afghan government entitled the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” Meanwhile the intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan do not have the word “peace” in their description.
The deal that Khalilzad, or “Zal” as he is called, signed in Doha was an “America first” deal that ignored the interests of the Afghan government or people and prioritized the US while empowering the Taliban. It stipulated a troop withdrawal on schedule, by May 1, 2021. This automatically stripped the Afghan government of its leverage and also meant it would be facing a possible Taliban offensive on May 2. Trump did not seem to care and handed it all to the Taliban from the beginning because he was in such a rush to sign the deal.
The US did not place any conditions on the Taliban, such as achieving progress in their talks with the Afghan government. Instead, the US even proposed an interim government to replace the current elected (if flawed) one. To many observers this looked like a US-backed Taliban coup. And Zal has been promising everyone positions in that new government.
The Taliban had to commit to halting their attacks on the US but they could continue to attack Afghan government forces at a time when those Afghan forces were receiving less US military assistance and less logistical assistance so they could not supply bases and had to withdraw from more of the country. The Taliban also increased their attacks against civilians at the end of 2020. None of this mattered to the US government, which wanted the deal for domestic reasons related to US elections and not in order to leave a stable Afghanistan with a successful peace process.
According to one close observer of the talks, “Zal improvised, lied to everybody (including the UN and Europeans) and it fragmented the non-Taliban space. He doesn’t want to negotiate; he wants an easier path to a Taliban government. The Taliban don’t have a political language. They don’t have language for governing. Even the pro-Taliban people in American spaces say the Taliban have no interest in negotiating. And why would they? They are about to win. But the country will blow up. It’s not the country of the 90s. You cannot just back the strongest actor. There are too many, and the Taliban is not homogenous, and they have not prepared their fighters because they want to maintain cohesion. Nobody has prepared anything, nobody talked about integration of fighters into the security forces.”