20 Yrs After 9/11, How US Is Leaving Afghanistan And Why China Wants To Talk Peace With Taliban
The 2,500-odd US troops that are now present in Afghanistan would have flown back to their homeland by September 11, 2021, exactly 20 years to the day that al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Centre, leaving more than 3,000 people dead in the biggest-ever attack on American soil. The US responded by banding with allies and launching the war on terror, the big centrepiece of which was decimating terror groups and bringing the Taliban to heel in Afghanistan. Success in those missions has been hard-fought and it is argued that much of the work remains incomplete. But President Joe Biden believes that withdrawing is the only course to take now, though that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions, including for India.
When Are US Troops Leaving?
The US troops would have been home by now had Biden not extended the May 1 deadline agreed by his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration with the Taliban last February. According to the terms of that deal, the US would withdraw all troops while the Taliban would enter into peace talks with the Afghan government in Kabul and agree to not allow Afghan soil to be used for terrorist activities.
Although Biden extended that deadline, the decision to have US troops back home by September 11, 2021 is not “conditions-based”. Which is simply that US troops will withdraw anyhow.
Why Are They Leaving?
It is the longest war the US has fought. Biden has called it the ‘forever war’ and some refer to it as the ‘enduring war’, a pun on “Enduring Freedom’, the name that the operation to rid Afghanistan of anti-US extremists was given by then President George W. Bush. The campaign has been frustratingly hard to execute and the Taliban are by some accounts at least as strong as when US boots had first stepped foot in the country.
A total of $2 trillion of US taxpayer money has been spent on the Afghan campaign, which has now continued under the watch of four different US presidents and claimed the lives of more than 2,300 US soldiers since 2001, when the invasion began. The war is a major political issue for voters in the US and all of Biden’s predecessor’s have tried to end it for good. However, despite enlisting its NATO allies and fostering democracy in Afghanistan, the US has not succeeded in decimating the Taliban and the group, experts say, is more powerful now than it has been at any stage since its initial overthrow by international and local coalition forces in 2001.
The answer to this is complicated. Biden thinks that it is the best US can do given the circumstances in Afghanistan. His predecessors juggled troop numbers and multiple Afghan stakeholders but failed to “turn a corner” in the campaign. The situation is by now seen across the political spectrum as a mess that two decades of fighting has not been able to resolve. Recent efforts to end the war have been more pragmatic when it comes to objectives.
Announcing the withdrawal by 9/11/2021 decision, Biden said: “We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021. We were attacked, we went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is degraded in Afghanistan, and it’s time to end this forever war.”
Critics of the decision to withdraw, however, say that it is not as simple as that. While it is true that it was al Qaeda that was behind the 9/11 strikes and the Taliban’s complicity was in having given the group a base and sheltering its leader Osama bin Laden, the goal of the US campaign was seen as bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan. Both those objectives are far from fulfilled.
Washington has said it will continue providing “over-the-horizon” logistical support, that is, not from the territory of Afghanistan itself but from bases outside the country. However, experts say it remains to be seen how effective such an arrangement would be in actually keeping the Taliban in check.
Technically, the US is trying to facilitate a peace/power sharing deal between the Taliban and the democratically elected government President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, but talks between the two sides have been held against the backdrop of continuing fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban has said it will not agree to a ceasefire and its commitment to the talks process itself is widely doubted, including by the US.
According to the Long War Journal (LWJ) of the Foundation for Defense Of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, 30% of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are in government hands and the Taliban controls some 20% while the rest of the country is contested territory witness to regular fighting.
Bombings are common as the Taliban continue to clash with the Afghan security forces who, though trained by the NATO coalition, are not seen as being capable of countering the insurgents . President Ghani though has noted that government forces are equal to the task.
A worrisome factor is that the Taliban does not necessarily share the same vision for a post-troop-withdrawal Afghanistan as the Kabul government. It is understood to remain steadfast to its stand of a strictly Islamic society, which may mean no place for elections or even girls’ education if it has its way. And, with coalition forces out of the way it may feel it is a matter of time before it establishes its control in Kabul and the rest of the country.
“We assess that prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year. The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support. Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory,” according to the recent Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the US Intelligence Community.
India has firmly backed the government in Kabul, which sees New Delhi as a friend. But the country has not engaged with the Taliban, which may prove detrimental to its interests in the changed scenario post the US withdrawal. The perception among experts is that the vacuum thus created will again allow Pakistan to emerge as the key player in Afghan politics given Islamabad’s support for and sheltering of Taliban leaders.
But Pakistan also realises that a quick US withdrawal may again thrust Afghanistan back into a full-blown civil war. In such a situation, Pakistan would likely have to deal with a fresh influx of refugees that would swell the ranks of the close to 3 million Afghan refugees that the country has already sheltered.
China, meanwhile, is looking to take a lead role in the Afghan peace process and this week hosts a virtual meeting of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral foreign ministers dialogue, the fourth in the series.
Beijing would be worried about a resurgent Taliban sparking trouble with Uighur groups in its restive Xinjiang province. Further, it also has its economic interests to protect in the neighbourhood in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Beijing has also offered to host peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and is understood to want that any future government in Kabul should pursue a moderate policy, promote a foreign policy of peace, maintain a friendship with neighbouring countries and firmly combat all forms of terrorism.