In January, the Department of Defense said that only 2,500 U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan, “the lowest number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan since operations started there in 2001.” But two months ago, the New York Times reported that, according to U.S., European, and Afghan officials, “that number is actually around 3,500.” The last death of a U.S. soldier from hostile fire was February 8, 2020. As I noted in January, the U.S. combat death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years is comparable to that of Niger.
While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the move, I expect most Americans – many of whom have forgotten about our presence in Afghanistan, or who at least don’t think about it often — will either shrug or applaud the move. Twenty years is a long, long time.
Concerned Veterans for America senior adviser Dan Caldwell issued a statement, “While we still believe a full withdrawal by the May 1st deadline in the Doha agreement best serves America’s interests, we are pleased to hear President Biden is firmly committed to bringing our troops home within the next few months. America has more pressing priorities at home and elsewhere, and President Biden must keep his promise to end our endless war in Afghanistan.”
And yet… it’s quite possible that our withdrawal will result in the Taliban eventually toppling the legitimate and freely-elected government of Afghanistan. A spring 2020 report from the United Nations painted a portrait of the Taliban indicating they have learned nothing, and have changed nothing:
The senior leadership of Al-Qaida remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban. A number of significant Al-Qaida figures were killed in Afghanistan during the reporting period. Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy. The challenge will be to secure the counter-terrorism gains to which the Taliban have committed, which will require them to suppress any international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan…
Some Member States reported that the Taliban appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al-Qaida rather than the opposite. One Member State reported that the regularity of meetings between Al-Qaida seniors and the Taliban “made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction”. The link was described not in simple terms of group-to-group, but rather as “one of deep personal ties (including through marriage) and long-term sense of brotherhood”. Al-Qaida capitalizes on this through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance and financial support. The Taliban offensive against Ghazni City in August 2018 was a prime example of the effective deployment of Al-Qaida support.
Another U.N. report laid out how the Taliban never lost their taste for civilian casualties:
In 2020, the Taliban continued to cause the most civilian casualties of any party to the armed conflict. From 1 January to 31 December, UNAMA attributed 3,960 civilian casualties (1,470 killed and 2,490 injured) to the Taliban. This represents a 19 per cent decrease in civilian casualties in comparison to 2019. However, the reduction is only in civilians injured, as UNAMA documented a concerning 13 per cent increase in civilians killed.
…UNAMA also recorded a 22 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed and injured by Taliban targeted killings, which includes “assassinations” deliberately targeting civilians, and a 169 per cent increase in civilian casualties occurring during abductions of civilians by the Taliban.
Suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, mortar attacks on civilian areas… the Taliban never changed their tactics or their character.
There is no indication that the Taliban has changed its attitudes towards women’s rights. In the aftermath of our withdrawal, we should be prepared to hear more stories of girls being barred from school and getting hit with acid to the face.
And then there is the question of whether five to ten years from now, we’re faced with either a resurgent al-Qaeda or a like-minded international terrorist threat, setting up their home base on the Taliban’s turf, all over again…