President Biden’s plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11 is a welcome and long-overdue action. The decision was made politically possible by two things. First, by what CNN described as Biden’s reason for withdrawing the troops: the fact that “there is no military solution to the security and political problems plaguing Afghanistan.” And second, by the crucial reality that thousands of people across this country understood right at the very beginning of the US war, and millions more have figured out in the almost 20 years since.
The idea that there is no military solution and that therefore the war is doomed to fail is nothing new. From the former UN secretary general and the US State Department to former President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to dozens of generals, analysts, and TV pundits, the understanding that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, and indeed no military solution to terrorism—the original US rationale for invading the country in 2001—is an old story. Biden himself, as a senator and as vice president, at various points urged an end to the war, sometimes yelling at high-ranking military officials who were trying to feed him an overly optimistic line.
In fact, recognition that the US war in Afghanistan was wrong emerged even before the US invasion. The first major protest against the then-looming war was held in New York’s Union Square on October 7, 2001, just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks—and beginning just hours before the first US bombs exploded over Kabul’s night sky. Those first demonstrations were small. There was a sense of isolation from the majority of people who had accepted George W. Bush’s claim that war against Afghanistan was an appropriate answer to the 9/11 attacks, believing it to be a “good war,” a “just war.” Protesters understood that the war was illegal, lacking either UN Security Council authorization or the necessity of immediate self-defense; was immoral, since the US assault raged against an impoverished population that had no part in the criminal attacks of 9/11; and would inevitably fail to achieve any of the variously claimed US goals of democratization, Westernization, counterterrorism, stability, or women’s rights.
Over time those understandings grew; the early protests broadened and fused with the huge global anti-war mobilization that erupted to challenge Washington’s follow-on war in Iraq—and the discourse was transformed. Three weeks into the war, 80 percent of Americans supported using massive ground troops in Afghanistan, and 50 percent wanted the US military to simply take over large swaths of the country. Almost two decades later, that 80 percent US support for the war in Afghanistan has collapsed, with 76 percent backing withdrawal of all troops.
That powerful public opinion—or even elite opinion—was not the main reason for Biden’s decision. Nor was the earlier US promise to withdraw all troops by May 1, 2021—that was somehow massaged into a start-the-withdrawal date, despite Trump’s signing off on the agreement after months of negotiations with the Taliban. But the reality of what it would mean—and what it would cost Biden politically—to prolong a disastrous war into its third decade, seems to have finally pushed this fourth Afghanistan war president to respond. And that reality is: supporting an ineffective and massively corrupt government whose power and reforms largely end at the city limits of Kabul and maybe Kandahar; continuing efforts to train a military force populated by “ghost soldiers” who long ago abandoned the unpopular war to return home while their commanders pocket their salaries; presiding over the illusion of Western-style parliamentary democracy in a country whose long history remains one of reliance on family, village, tribe, and regional identities; cheering for the important but tiny gains in human rights won by the small sliver of women living in the cities, while the 75 percent of Afghan women who live in isolated villages and rural areas continue to face the highest level of infant mortality in the world.
Not surprisingly, the US-installed and US-backed government in Kabul is not happy with the plan to withdraw the last 3,500 US troops. The Washington Post headline was direct: “Push for peace is splintering Afghanistan’s fragile government.” “Push for peace.” Not the years of venality and incompetence that have plagued every government since the US invaded and installed a regime assembled from former warlords and long-time Western-based exiles. Not the wars—intra-Afghan ground wars and US-led air and drone strikes—that continue to extinguish civilian lives. No, it’s the push to end the wars that seems to be more than the US-backed authorities in Kabul, most notably Washington favorite Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, can handle.
The Taliban, unsurprisingly, responded with a rejection of the US plan that will keep thousands of foreign troops in their country for months beyond the May 1 deadline Washington had agreed to just a year earlier. Within hours of the announcement of Biden’s plan to withdraw troops by September 11, the Taliban stated that it would not participate in a US-proposed conference with the US-backed Afghan government scheduled to be held in Turkey in coming months to continue working toward an intra-Afghan agreement on governance and—crucially—a cease-fire following the US withdrawal.
There has been lots of discussion about the Taliban’s likely response to a US withdrawal. Many commentators are claiming that the pullout of the last several thousand troops currently in Afghanistan will result in a massive escalation of the civil war, that the Taliban will quickly seize power across the country and the result will be a complete collapse of all human rights, especially for women. The Taliban, they claim, will reimpose the harshly intolerant, extreme religious laws that prevailed in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, and likely welcome back Al Qaeda or other terrorist forces.
The possibility that the Taliban will significantly increase control over territory and people in parts of the country is certainly likely. But the wider claims leave out important realities and likely changes in Taliban thinking. The Taliban’s strategic goal—asserted widely and publicly—has always been to rid their country of foreign forces. Their long-standing refusal, only recently and grudgingly ended, to negotiate with the Afghan government was based on that government’s backing by the United States and its Western allies. With US troops gone, the Taliban will be able to claim victory in ridding the country of foreign occupation. That means they may feel more willing to negotiate both with the government in Kabul and, perhaps more importantly, with local authorities.
Why would the Taliban have any interest in negotiating with their long-standing Afghan opponents? Some may well have no such interest. But almost 20 years have passed since the Taliban was in power, and many in the organization are certainly all too aware of their impoverished and war-riven country’s dependence on the international community for economic aid and, eventually, political support. Many of the Taliban negotiators staking out hard-line positions in Qatar or elsewhere have lived outside the country for years or decades—and they may believe nothing has changed. But their compatriots inside Afghanistan have lived through the devastation of war; many have—quietly—negotiated with local religious and community leaders over such issues as access to health care and, yes, girls’ education. They know they will need support from the United Nations, the European Union, China, both India and Pakistan, and that support will be far easier to obtain if they are seen as open to postwar engagement, including some versions of women’s rights and especially keeping Al Qaeda and others out of the country.
Does that mean that life under Taliban rule will be easy? Absolutely not—especially for women. Taliban rule will no doubt be harsh, and human rights will have to be fought for every step of the way. The question that is too rarely asked, however, is how bad life is for women and men under the current government, with its contingent of former and present warlords, its corruption, its parliamentary and judicial resistance to making real the US-imposed commitment to women’s rights. One of the most notorious of 1980s-era US-backed Afghan warlords was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has long been associated with having first used the horrific weapon of acid thrown in the face of young women who had the temerity to seek higher education in Kabul in the 1970s. He returned to Kabul in 2016 and signed a peace agreement with the Afghan president. He has now proposed his own peace plan between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government and is central to negotiations over governance and potential power-sharing. And he is hardly the only one.
So what will the US withdrawal mean? Even after Biden’s April 14 speech acknowledging that there was no justification for keeping troops in Afghanistan and that the US role would be diplomatic rather than military, it remains unclear exactly what “withdrawing troops” means for the United States in Afghanistan. There is still no clarity about whether US drones—piloted from a secretive military base outside Las Vegas—will continue to drop bombs on Afghans. Is that what Biden meant by his plan to “reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities”? We know that US and US-backed air strikes and drone attacks continue to kill civilians in Afghanistan—and that in recent years the US air war killed more civilians than the Taliban. Is that what a post-ground-troops US role will look like? Continued air strikes?
What does it mean for the United States to continue to “provide assistance” to the 300,000 Afghan troops it has already trained and equipped—does that mean military trainers will remain past the September 11 deadline? If a Taliban patrol—obeying orders or not—attacks a military base on September 10 and a US soldier is killed, will that be the basis for keeping troops in country? Or for deploying an armed drone to attack the village where the patrol was last seen? Or will an armed drone be deployed to fire on that Taliban patrol by a Nevada pilot who then heads home for dinner?
Many things remain unclear. What we do know is that it will take a continued and broadened mobilization of anti-war people and organizations and movements to hold the Biden administration to its word that this really is the end of the US war in Afghanistan. Withdrawing US troops won’t end the war—but it’s a necessary step to make that possible for the people of Afghanistan.
It’s time to pull out the troops and end the air wars in Afghanistan. Now comes our work of making Biden’s commitment real, and making sure that diplomacy overtakes war as the basis of US foreign policy. Echoing President Biden’s speech, it is way past time to end America’s longest war. It is way past time for American troops to come home.