President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in September is an important and welcome, albeit belated, acknowledgment that America’s longest war is unwinnable.
The US has paid a heavy price in the 2,200 lives lost and costs of trillions of dollars, the Afghans even more so with 100,000 deaths. “We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” said Biden last week. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”
The US pullout will also mean that of the 7,000 other troops in the Nato-led, UN-sanctioned alliance of which Ireland was a small part.
The US, the greatest military power in the world, like the Soviet Union in 1988, was defeated by a terrain that has long proved impossible to conquer. Its two key objectives, to safeguard itself and allies from future long-distance terrorist attacks, in particular by destroying al-Qaeda, and in doing so to establish a stable democratic regime to replace and sideline the Taliban, have been only partially achieved.
The fear is that the American exit will lead to collapse of the weak Afghan government – there is no faith in the Afghan army – and a deepening civil war with the Taliban can open the door to a resurgence of al-Qaeda and a resumed terrorist threat. Despite Taliban promises not to renew support for the latter there is evidence of its continued presence on the ground.
In reality the American war is not over. The removal of boots-on-the-ground will, however, mean the US continue to maintain its regional presence – the Pentagon is discussing with allies where to reposition forces, possibly to neighbouring Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to US officials. Attack planes aboard aircraft carriers and long-range bombers and drones flying from land bases abroad will be capable of striking at any visible al-Qaeda presence.
Afghanistan’s agony will continue. But the US remaining in country would not end it either. There are no good alternatives.