‘Bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is degraded in Afghanistan and it’s time to end the forever war’. So said Joe Biden earlier this year when he announced his decision to pull US troops out of the country. The scenes of chaos that have followed that departure makes it vital that this myth – that western troops had already outstayed their welcome in Afghanistan – is not allowed to go unchallenged.
The reality is rather different: Biden’s decision to ‘end’ the war (or at least America’s involvement in it) was a politically motivated one, which suited the president. As the Taliban stormed into Kabul, Biden told the American public that:
‘If Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that one year — one more year, five more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.’
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Aside from the way in which Biden is prepared to call into question the bravery of those Afghan troops who have fought and died in the battle against the Taliban, the number of years a conflict has gone on for does not make a military campaign untenable; the security situation on the ground determines that. Biden simply chose not to take this into account; this was a catastrophic error, and one that history will not look back on his presidency kindly for.
Since Nato combat operations ended by 2015, the military emphasis has been on training the Afghan forces. The training was going well, but a professional military cannot be built overnight. The events of recent days show that this work was clearly far from finished.
The withdrawal of troops has directly led to the near-total collapse of the international diplomatic effort, as embassies have fallen one by one like dominoes. Development work in the ensuring power vacuum has ground to a halt in the face of the Taliban advance.
Of course, critics are entitled to ask what the end goal of western intervention in Afghanistan was. But while it was difficult to give such a date of when it would be ‘safe’ to leave Afghanistan, some perspective was needed. Over the last six years, Britain has maintained more troops in Estonia than in Afghanistan, while the US has deployed more personnel to Washington DC, than to Kabul. Britain maintained thousands of troops in Germany for decades after the close of the Second World War, while the US still maintains tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea and Japan. By comparison a twenty-year deployment is relatively light, particularly one which had seen combat operations end six years ago.
The status-quo of a sub-10,000 Nato force, which sought to train local forces and provide security for the international diplomatic community to ensure development could continue, was working well. But no longer.
The shocking scenes which we have witnessed unfold over the last few days and weeks is evidence enough that this was not the right time to simply cut and leave with our tails between our legs, hamstrung by political weakness and hubris.
Surrendering Afghan troops have been executed by the Taliban; girls are now at risk of being sold-off as brides for Taliban fighters; women could be forced out of higher education; interpreters and local nationals who worked with Nato troops are being hunted down door to door; and the wholesale eradication of Afghanistan’s civil society, paid for in the blood of British and American troops, is already unfolding. This is the devastating reality of the decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan prematurely.
What’s more, the true cost to the West will only likely be realised in years to come. Declaring an unconditional withdrawal, with few enforceable terms to bind the morally repugnant Taliban regime has recreated the very environment in Afghanistan which enabled 9/11 to happen. An anti-western and religiously fanatical Taliban regime, now controlling more of the country than before the western military intervention, is a place in which anti-western terrorist organisations could easily flourish. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next month, this is the true legacy of Biden’s cowardly withdrawal.
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