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A State in Limbo: The Afghanistan Withdrawal Crisis, Two Years On

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Culture Analyst

Credit: Tasnim News Agency, Wikimedia Commons

August 2021 marked the end of America’s longest war. After almost twenty years, its troops finally departed Afghanistan - a country profoundly altered by their lingering presence. With an accumulated expenditure of over $2 trillion and irreparable human cost, the conflict had painfully overshadowed US foreign policy for decades. Yet, as distressing scenes unfolded of desperate Afghans scaling airport walls in a last attempt to escape the rapidly advancing Taliban, there was a resounding sentiment that this immense sacrifice had been in vain. Over the following two years, this sense of foreboding would become cemented in reality. While the people of a broken state continue to suffer immeasurably at the mercy of an unforgiving regime, the spectre of Afghanistan continues to haunt American administrations past and present.

The warning signs were there. In the summer of 2021, violence in Afghanistan was on the rise. The Taliban ramped up attacks on government and ANDSF targets, swiftly making significant territorial gains. Early August saw fighters beginning direct assaults on multiple cities and urban areas, including Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west. The capture of Zaranj on August 6th triggered a succession of provincial capitals falling to the Taliban. Yet the Western world, at least, was distracted. Social polarisation, exacerbated by events such as the US Capitol attack and the international distribution of coronavirus vaccines, ran rife. In this new age of anxiety, widespread mistrust of political elites began to cloud the globalised efforts to tackle world problems - from the spread of disease to the war on terror. For many people, navigating the post-pandemic era left little room for the domestic turmoil of faraway lands. The reporting of conflict in the Arab world seemed indicative of the previous decade - while war and insurgencies in states like Syria and Iraq once dominated international news, the sociopolitical climate of the early 2020s held - and continues to hold - little time for them. Amid a whirlwind of insurrection, conspiracies and post-truth politics, people were simply not paying attention.

As news circulated of armed fighters entering Kabul, the world could no longer turn a blind eye. President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country and the government had crumbled. International news outlets were replaying the harrowing images of an American transport plane departing Kabul airport, mobbed by panicked citizens in their hundreds. Days later, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device, killing 170 Afghan civilians and 13 United States service members. Bagram Air Base, once the largest US military hub in the country, had fallen to rebel fighters. There was no doubt about it – Taliban rule had returned to Afghanistan. Within mere weeks, years of shaky progress attempting to bring about democracy were unwritten in a swift power grab.

The chaotic end to decades of struggle was a culmination of a continuous foreign policy approach that reflected the determination of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden to end this unwinnable war at all costs. The presidents regarded Afghanistan as a lost cause, burdening US foreign policy and squandering lives and resources. For years, the conflict had tainted the legacies of the past four administrations. The populace viewed it as a costly fight in a foreign land at the expense of far too many American soldiers. Even as Vice-President to Obama, Biden was advocating to get out of Afghanistan - a promise he was intent on seeing through as he began his own Presidency.

In February 2020, under the Trump administration, the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan was signed in Doha, Qatar by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar. The deal involved the arrangement that the US would depart the country by 1 May 2021, though Biden managed to push this date to August, and in return the Taliban agreed not to attack US personnel. The Taliban also agreed to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”. The nature of this deal placed considerable pressure on the current and succeeding US administrations to get their troops out. In a televised speech, Biden spoke of the stark choice he “inherited” from his predecessor, claiming he was forced to “either follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season”. While many members of his administration, such as Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, favoured maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan, the impetus to leave came largely from the American people. While the government had the option of leaving thousands of troops behind to manage the terrorist threat and continue to help modernise Afghan infrastructure, most Americans did not support this vision. In the eyes of many voters, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 ended the necessity of US involvement in Afghanistan - there was no longer a prevailing obligation to stay in the country.

A problematic aspect of the US-Taliban deal was that the negotiations excluded the Afghan government. The Doha Agreement included a clause that effectively permitted the release of Taliban fighters without the involvement of the Afghan regime, as part of what was labelled a “confidence-building measure” between the negotiating parties. Even though attacks against Afghan security forces by insurgents had surged following the deal, by the early autumn of 2020 the Afghan government had freed about 5,000 Taliban prisoners following a request from the Trump administration. The agreement also concerned “a new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations”. These power-sharing talks never took place – a detail former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Biden should have enforced before he removed American forces from the country. With this profound lack of political coordination coupled with a security force weakened by a withdrawal of US support, the ease with which the Taliban seized control of the country should have come as no surprise.

At their first press conference, Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesperson, guaranteed press freedom and vowed to protect women’s rights, as well as claiming those who worked with foreign forces would not be under threat. Two years later, life under hardline Islamist rule has yet to witness any of these promises come to fruition. Blighted by natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, weak infrastructure and a plummeting economy have resulted in 90% of the county lacking reliable access to food. Women and girls have been systematically removed from public life; barred from secondary education and banned from employment. Unable to attend university, frequent beauty salons and even visit national parks, the erasure of women from Afghan society has reversed twenty years of progress. Stripped of their identities and affected by widespread sexual violence and disproportionately high suicide rates, the future for women and girls is bleak.

Alongside members of the LGBTQ + community, political opponents, former Afghan government and military personnel, journalists, translators, and academics, they live under constant fear. Those left behind from the 2021 withdrawal process are living in a state of limbo - struggling to continue with everyday life while suffering the devastating effects of a human rights crisis. With the Taliban determined to seek revenge on anyone who offered forms of aid to the US and other allied states, there is a deep sense of abandonment and betrayal felt by many citizens who had previously assisted Western efforts to modernise the country.

The past two years have also raised concerns about the global terror threat. In the weeks following the mass exodus of American military personnel from Afghanistan, many people voiced their fears that the country could once again serve as a haven for Islamic extremism. The killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike in Kabul last year alluded to the implication that the Taliban had not upheld their side of the Doha Agreement, intensifying mistrust in the regime. On August 25th this year, a UN Security Council report claimed that several terrorist groups, including Daesh/ISIS, are currently present in Afghanistan and have access to weapons left by US-led foreign forces - an allegation that was angrily rebuffed by the interim Taliban government. Whilst spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took to X (formerly Twitter) to proclaim that Daesh/ISIS in Afghanistan has been "reduced to zero" over the past year, the activities of extremist groups in conflict zones and neighbouring countries remain a worrying threat to global security.

It is still unclear to what extent the events of August 2021 affected America’s position as a global superpower. While the mass evacuation from Kabul saved thousands of lives, the focus remained on the people left behind. In many ways, the mistakes in Afghanistan draw parallels to Saigon decades earlier - an embarrassing foreign policy blunder that dented America’s international standing. The deaths of American personnel and the seizure of US infrastructure were undoubtedly a terrible look for President Biden, who had built his campaign on the premise of competency and control - the antithesis of the image associated with the previous Trump administration.

There is no question that the shambolic nature of the exit affected Biden’s domestic reputation. In the weeks, months and years leading up to the withdrawal, getting the US out of Afghanistan was met with bipartisan approval. A Hill-HarrisX poll conducted in July 2021 found that 73% of registered American voters supported removing US troops from Afghanistan – a sentiment that crossed party lines, with 81% of Democrats backing the decision and 61 % of Republicans. However, the eventual evacuation process generated almost instantaneous criticism, which mounted considerably following the Kabul airport suicide bombing. With politicians and the populace alike condemning the frenzied exodus from the country America had occupied for so long, August 2021 was the first time Biden hit net disapproval ratings – a circumstance from which he is yet to recover. While Afghanistan may not be a top issue for most Americans, the President's handling of the withdrawal alluded to more broken promises and reaffirmed the views of his detractors - that he was not up to the job. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban once again, accompanied with the loss of American lives, dimmed Biden’s victory of ending a deeply unpopular war.

The human cost of conflict in Afghanistan has been monumental. Since the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, a total of 2,456 US military personnel have lost their lives in the country. In comparison, the Cost of War Project, a research initiative coordinated by Brown University, has estimated the war killed 176,000 people in Afghanistan: 46,319 civilians, 69,095 military and police and at least 52,893 opposition fighters. The absence of US troops has done little to dampen the flames of violence that engulf parts of the region, as the Taliban and armed opposition groups such as the National Resistance Front continue to engage in combat.

As Afghanistan reverts to a post-occupation era where the Taliban rule with an iron fist, the liberal goal to transform the country into a democratic society has backfired. For its citizens, a long trajectory of instability and fear continues.


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