In The News Quiz September 13, 2021

Understanding the U.S. Military Departure from Afghanistan

After 20 years, some 2,500 American soldiers’ deaths (and some 65 times that many deaths of Taliban fighters, Afghan government forces, and Afghan civilians), the U.S. war in Afghanistan—begun in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and other targets—has ended. Rather than the relatively orderly departure that U.S. generals and Biden Administration foreign-policy leaders expected, chaos ruled as Americans and Afghans who supported the U.S. effort scrambled to depart the country. Scenes from Kabul’s civilian airport, following the unexpectedly swift reassertion of Taliban rule across the country, mark the gravest international crisis of Joe Biden’s young presidency.

Might the American military’s departure have gone more smoothly? Can the U.S. claim any enduring benefits of two decades of war and associated efforts at “nation-building” in Afghanistan?

President Biden’s decision to stick to his announced August 31 withdrawal from Afghanistan remains sharply criticized, especially by conservative Republicans. Yet previous presidents similarly issued withdrawal dates: Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, announced in May 2014 that all American combat troops would be gone by December 2014, leaving a small counterterrorism force. Obama later reversed his decision and affirmed that the American military would remain through the end of his term in early 2017. Donald Trump, a particularly vocal critic at present of Biden’s withdrawal, negotiated in February 2020 with the Taliban an end date for U.S. troop presence of May 1, 2021; Biden pushed that deadline four months later, but sustained his predecessor’s agreement.

Assessing the American withdrawal is difficult, given fast-shifting circumstances in Afghanistan over the past year-plus. U.S. military intelligence suggested the Afghan army could hold off the Taliban for 18 months after American departure. Managing an orderly process for leaving, with more than 122,000 people (mostly Afghanis) airlifted out by the U.S. and hundreds of thousands more clamoring to join, was likely impossible.

What does the U.S. have to show for 20 years of war? Afghanistan has harbored few organized terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda during this time. And some social and educational successes are evident; nearly 40 percent of Afghani girls had achieved literacy by 2020, up from very few during Taliban rule pre-9/11, for example. Renewed Taliban rule could well reverse most such gains.

What do you think? Should President Biden have extended U.S. military presence longer? Or should American troops have left years ago?

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