In a plan crafted by former president Donald Trump and carried out by current president Joe Biden, the US has officially withdrawn troops from Afghanistan and has declared the 20 year war to be over. In July, the US military confirmed it had pulled out of Bagram Airfield, its largest airfield in Afghanistan, and by mid-August, the Taliban had taken over Kabul. August 31 marked the deadline for final evacuation flights.
While the withdrawal from Afghanistan seems to have been supported across partisan lines, Biden has drawn a lot of criticism for the manner in which it was carried out. Criticism has come from Republicans and Democrats, European allies, and countries not on great terms with the US.
Rep. Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat, recently tweeted, “although it is clear to me that we could not continue to put American service members in danger for an unwinnable war, I also believe that the evacuation process appears to have been egregiously mishandled.”
Biden has defended the withdrawal, saying, “I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan.” His supporters praise the operation as the end of the two decade-long “forever war,” but critics say that enabling the Taliban takeover means the war may have changed but will continue in ways yet unforeseen.
What Went Wrong?
It seems there was a critical lapse in US intelligence regarding the withdrawal, centering around the underestimation of how fast the Taliban would take over the entire country. The chaos that will forever be associated with the US exit of Afghanistan, despite the ultimate airlifting out of 120,000 evacuees, at this time appears to hinge on the miscalculation of the Afghan government and its army’s ability to hold the line.
Since the US underestimated the speed of the Taliban’s takeover, it prioritized troops and failed to evacuate American citizens in Afghanistan and at-risk Afghans. On August 26, a terror attack killed 13 US service members and 170 Afghans.
Human rights and refugee groups are beside themselves about what will happen to those who managed to escape, and worse, those who did not.
Europe’s Reaction to US Withdrawal
Europe has learned the hard way, time and again, that US foreign policy often affects European countries more than America. The pullout from Afghanistan seems to be another such lesson. Tony Blair, former prime minister of England, described the pullout as “tragic, dangerous, and unnecessary.”
Twenty years ago, he had sent British troops to work alongside Americans. The two countries were partners in a decades-long effort in which any gains seem to have been erased, though time will be the ultimate arbiter. Blair said the Taliban takeover will be bad for Afghanistan and any country with Western interests. He added, “you look around the world and the only people really cheering this decision are the people hostile to Western interests.” That said, a majority of Americans believed it was time for the war to end.
Current British prime minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and other European allies (a group known as G7) lobbied for Biden to extend the August 31 deadline to make sure everyone who needed to be evacuated was. Biden declined, saying the risk of terror attacks was too great. That deadline itself was an extension already and at some point the Taliban would have taken up arms against the coalition forces once again, possibly requiring additional troops to be deployed to the area.
After the meeting, Biden sought to reaffirm the US as a world leader by saying, “the United States will be a leader in these [evacuation and refugee support] efforts and we’ll look to the international community and to our partners to do the same.” While Biden has the ultimate say regarding US military actions, some critics say European leaders must rethink their reliance on US commitments when it comes to foreign policy.
The words of Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, sum up the overall feeling of European leaders at this point: “I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration. This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.”
China and Russia
China has not passed up the opportunity to criticize America for its disorderly operation. State news wire Xinhua stated, “Death, bloodshed and a tremendous humanitarian tragedy are what the United States has truly left behind in Afghanistan.”
Russia, at this point, is positioned as a major superpower in Central Asia. While it has no immediate plans of sending in troops or intervening in the Taliban’s new regime, it has the power to do so if necessary. With the issue of refugee relocation and terrorism containment, it is unclear how Russia will proceed. What is clear is that it has a lot more power following the US withdrawal.
A major element of the decision to withdraw was the belief that the threat of terrorism can spring from anywhere on the globe, and that maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan was not necessary to mitigate or neutralize threats that might eventually pop up from there. ISIS-K is now considered to be a threat of concern, however the fact that they are vehemently at odds with the Taliban (for now) means their reach will be stunted. Similarly, the current expectation that the Taliban wish to be recognized by the international community is somewhat of a hedge against the re-adoption of their previous status as a haven for terrorist groups, like Al Qaeda. There is no way to know how that will play out.
Just like the war itself, the decision to cease it remains multifaceted, complex, and debatable. Was pulling out from Afghanistan the right thing to do? Or has the end of the 20-year war managed to alienate US allies and strengthen their enemies? Will America’s adversaries be emboldened to test it’s resolve in other areas, or will they be worried that the US may have something to prove in order to demonstrate its strength. The details are not fully clear yet, and the second and third order effects have yet to play out, so only time will tell.