While I, like many of my fellow students, was too young to recall living through 9/11, we are very aware of how this attack has come to shape and change American society. From the presence of TSA checkpoints at our nation’s airports to the surveillance apparatus empowered under the PATRIOT ACT, 9/11’s influence has made itself felt as the debate rages on as to whether these developments are justified in the name of national security or acts of flagrant government overreach. However, while these institutions continue to this day, another one seems like it’s soon coming to an end. President Biden announced earlier this year that he intends for all American troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11th. Thus, Operation Enduring Freedom, the longest war in our nation’s history, will finally be coming to an end.
The war started with the U.S. invading Afghanistan in 2001 to depose the Taliban regime due to their support for and harboring Al-Qaeda members, including Osama Bin Laden. Upon completing that goal, however, the objective then shifted toward a nation-building mission. The previous Sharia state was to be replaced with a western-style democracy that would emphasize female empowerment for the previously marginalized female population. Once barred from receiving education by the brutal theocrats, young girls would finally be able to attend newly built schools and women could finally join the workforce without the fear of death. However, the early successes soon came to an end as the Taliban managed to rebuild and continue fighting, hindering the Afghan government’s ability to effectively administer and secure the country. Fast forward to today, following a series of surges and drawdowns, $2.26 Trillion spent, and 23,108 killed and wounded, the U.S. seems to have decided that enough is enough.
As it stood before Biden announced his plans for withdrawal, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan stood at around 2,500 troops. For scale, the current number of soldiers stationed in Germany, an ally in peacetime, stands at about 34,000. Their mission now, rather than directly engaging the Taliban in combat, consists of providing training, advice, and support for the Afghan National Army (ANA), as well as a smaller group from that 2,500 assigned to support for counterterrorism operations. Since February of 2020, there have been zero US troops killed in Afghanistan. Rather, the local Afghans have begun to bear more of the brunt in the fighting. As one can imagine, there is much debate about the ongoing withdrawal, especially within the right side of the political spectrum. Some on the right think that this presence is a minimal investment with substantial return in providing support to the ANA and ensuring progress made over the last 20 years doesn’t get reversed. Others on the right place themselves starkly in the “we’ve done all we can, so let’s bring the troops back home” camp. I tend to fall more into the latter camp, meaning we should base our withdrawals on the conditions on the ground and not risk the possibility of depraved animals being able to enforce their depraved worldviews on innocent women and children. However, as the decision has been made, here’s what Biden’s withdrawal means for Afghanistan, its people, and the larger region as a whole while strategic implications begin to set in.
Earlier this month, following remarks on the status of the withdrawal, Joe Biden declared that his decision was influenced by his trust in the capability of the Afghan military, which he felt “is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war.” The Afghan National Army, consisting of 300,000 troops and backed by upwards of $90 Billion in US funding, may seem like a capable fighting force on paper, especially when compared to their foes in the Taliban, which consists of around 60,000 fighters armed with mostly outdated Soviet relics. One would think that least. In the field, however, we’ve seen that investment and twenty years of training go out the door as the Taliban have managed to achieve a string of victories in recent weeks as they’ve managed to seize control of the country’s northern districts. Moreover, ahead of this advance, thousands of Afghan troops have surrendered or retreated (some across the border into Tajikistan), hoping to avoid the merciless treatment the terror group enacts on those who resist them. Since the U.S. first announced its intent to depart in April, the number of districts under Taliban control has increased from 73 to 221. As numerous Afghan cities find themselves surrounded and the army finds itself stretched thin and fractured without the presence of U.S. air support, the intelligence community has forecasted that the current government is likely to collapse within six months after the last C-130 leaves Kabul. As their forces continue to cede ground, the Afghan government is now turning to local warlords and tribal leaders who led anti-Taliban militias back in 2001 to take up arms and fight alongside the Afghan army. This move is a double-edged sword, however, as the move risks the possibility of these armed groups soon turning their guns on the government in the future in a rush to secure power as the new rulers of the country, risking another civil war as seen in the 1990s after the installed Soviet-aligned government collapsed.
Regardless of what happens, a Taliban victory would result in an absolute humanitarian catastrophe. In a peek at what’s likely to come, the Taliban engaged in a campaign of retribution against civilians deemed guilty of collaboration with the government during its northern offensive, looting and burning houses and executing several civilians in the process. Taking the hint, many Afghans who assisted our troops as interpreters know what is in store for them and their families if they stay in the country, and there has thankfully been bipartisan pressure on the Biden Administration to organize an evacuation of interpreters and their families to safer areas. However, progress on that front has unfortunately been slow, and many are worried that the walls are closing in too fast for those who risked their lives by helping us. The prospects are not much better for the general population, as those who remember the Taliban’s 5-year rule from 1996-2001 are worried that their nightmares may once again become a hellish reality. The Taliban’s record of enforcing its barbaric interpretations of Islam has horrifying consequences for its women, foreigners, journalists, and ethnic minorities. In the 20 years that the U.S. has been there, Afghanistan has managed to become a more open, educated, and cosmopolitan society, and the Taliban being unleashed on these people has the potential to lead to a rehash of the atrocities the Cambodian people were forced to suffer under the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The other warlords that may oppose the Taliban are hardly angels, however, and have their fair share of innocent blood on their hands as well. If a Civil War or Taliban takeover were to occur, it would be the civilians who would be forced to suffer as they end up caught in the crossfire. Already, the war in Afghanistan has created 2.7 million refugees, and as the prospects of the country’s human rights returning to the stone age continue, that number is likely only to increase.
As seen by the refugee crises in Syria and Latin America, a common trend is that their effects are felt by entire regions rather than just the country that the problem is occurring. Afghanistan will not be an exception. Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan have all taken actions to secure their borders against any potential waves seeking refuge. In the case of Pakistan, the situation in Afghanistan is likely to have lasting consequences regarding their relationship with the U.S. and regional security. Pakistan has long had an interest in supporting Islamic groups in Afghanistan. This pattern can be traced back to the 1980s, during which it worked with the U.S. in funneling arms to anti-Soviet Mujahideen fighters. However, unlike the U.S., it continues supporting guerilla forces to this day, often allowing the Taliban to retreat into the country, as well as allowing Osama Bin-Laden to stay in the country. The reasoning for this is influenced in part by their rivalry with neighboring India, which Pakistan accuses of trying to divide up the country into ethnic lines, fearing Afghanistan will be used as a launchpad for anti-Pakistani guerilla fighters. Thus, they’ve sought to ensure that a more friendly party governs their Afghan neighbors. However, the Taliban victory seems set to blow up in their face as now fundamental Islamic groups in Pakistan feel emboldened to strike against a government that is increasingly trying to “normalize,” as well as a massive migration crisis threatening its borders. Now, Pakistan must contend with a United States that is increasingly growing closer to their Indian rivals while they find themselves falling more within the sphere of influence of the Chinese Communist Party. China itself is beginning to eye Afghanistan with some interest. China and Pakistan have solidified their friendship through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which they now seek to expand into a Taliban Controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban, on their part, have promised China that they will not interfere or comment on Chinese internal matters, effectively avoiding the entire issue of Uyghur persecution in Xinjiang in a stunning display of Islamic Solidarity. As Afghanistan has reserves of minerals such as thorium, lithium, and cobalt valued at over $1 Trillion, China is likely to have access to those materials in its economic competition against the United States. Russia, which has supposedly supplied guns to the Taliban in the past, has denied the U.S. the ability to set up a base in one of the former Soviet Central Asian countries, as it seeks, like China, to fill up the growing vacuum left behind by the U.S.
As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and ends its longest conflict in history, many will welcome the fact that our troops are no longer in danger and that our taxpayers no longer have to shovel money into the furnace of a doomed nation-building endeavor. However, as the U.S. realigns to focus on threats such as Russia and China, we should still be wary of the developments in the land-locked nation “where empires die.” History has shown that what happens in the Middle East has a nasty tendency of coming back to bite us at the most inopportune moment. As our troops leave and millions soon find themselves under the jackboot of deranged zealots once again, we should consider what message this sends allies and foes in the geopolitical arena. When the going gets tough, will America play the long game and see that the job is done, or will we cut and run, those who decided to trust us being burnt in the end?