The Biden administration has announced that all remaining U.S. non-special operations troops in Afghanistan — officially listed as 2,500, though the current number on the ground is reportedly closer to 3,500 — will be fully withdrawn by September 11, 2021. The Trump administration had negotiated a nebulous May 1 withdrawal, but in true Trump form did no work to facilitate the process. President Biden’s decision to establish a hard date for troop removal sets the stage, at long last, for the longest and most utterly useless war in U.S. history to be brought to a close.
The choice to set a firm withdrawal date was actually forced by the half-assed “diplomacy” of the prior administration. Trump’s White House announced May 1 as a departure date, the Taliban responded by promising attacks should the withdrawal not happen, and Trump’s people proceeded to do absolutely nothing to begin the arduous process. Mr. Biden picked a date that is more feasible to withdrawal than three weeks from now, and did so in hopes of forestalling any Taliban attacks.
“If we break the May 1st deadline negotiated by the previous administration with no clear plan to exit, we will be back at war with the Taliban, and that was not something President Biden believed was in the national interest,” an anonymous individual familiar with the negotiations told The Washington Post.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
It’s a wheel, a frictionless machine designed to make excuses for itself and create war profit. If we stay, it will be war. If we leave, it will be war and we will have to return. Every choice is bad, every outcome likely calamitous; choosing the less painful course is impossible, because the whole thing is pain. Yet here looms May 1, and an opportunity to make our way home at long last.
And so, 20 years and trillions of dollars later, with more than 2,000 U.S. troops and God only knows how many civilians killed, this nation appears set to join the former Soviet Union, Great Britain and a cavalcade of others going back to Alexander the Great, all of which shared the same conceit: They thought they could win a war in the graveyard of empires.
The planned troop withdrawal is a victory for peace activists. Make no mistake, however: For the U.S. state, it is a defeat that has been a long time coming. Make no mistake. George W. Bush said we would build a nation in Afghanistan, Barack Obama doubled down on that bet and Donald Trump jacked up the use of private military contractors over there by 65 percent. All for naught; the vast consensus of foreign policy experts on both sides of the spectrum holds that the government in Kabul will fall to the Taliban within weeks of U.S. withdrawal. The wind will blow down from the Hindu Kush, the dust will rise and fall and our bootprints will be erased like we had never been there. That is war in Afghanistan, in a nutshell.
The decision to withdraw has elicited exactly the kind of response you’d expect from members of the Republican Party. “It is retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished and abdication of American leadership,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “An enemy that has not yet been vanquished”? Two decades of futility is not enough? I will never cease to be amazed at McConnell’s ability to spout razor-tipped nonsense without slicing off his own tongue.
“A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous. President Biden will have, in essence, cancelled an insurance policy against another 9/11,” said Lindsey Graham. Really, where do they come up with this stuff? The war in Afghanistan is no more an insurance policy against another 9/11 than the war in Iraq was. In point of fact, more Afghan people become furiously radicalized every time their families, funerals and hospitals are bombed in this endless war. The very war we fight over there recruits for the Taliban, and has done so for 20 years now.
But will the U.S. be leaving, really? By “the U.S.” of course, I refer to the massive number of private military contractors currently “working” in Afghanistan. In 2010, the contractors outnumbered the troops 2-1. By January 2021, there were more than 18,000 contractors in country. More than 3,814 of them have died over there, almost twice the number of U.S. troop casualties. They are almost invisible to the mainstream news media, and are there for the profit: Not just for themselves, but for the companies seeking to cash in on Afghanistan’s vast natural resources.
“But despite periodic reports and series on contractors by ProPublica and others, the mainstream U.S. media does not regularly pay attention to contractors,” reports The Washington Post. “As a result, they’re subject to political manipulation. These dynamics have contributed to what journalist Dexter Filkins has called ‘The Forever War.’ Which means that U.S. contractors could help sustain hostilities in Afghanistan, even after the U.S. pulls out its troops.”
There are no promises the U.S. will meet that September 11 deadline. If we do, there is no promise we won’t go blundering back in if the government collapses and bloody carnage grips Kabul again. Some warn against departure, while others see a chance for redemption in leaving. Even if U.S. troops go and stay gone, thousands of private contractors will remain to defend and augment corporate profits from mining and natural gas pipelines.
Afghanistan is a hall of cracked mirrors, and we are lost in it. Staying has not worked for some 7,300 days. President Biden has made the prudent choice here. Now we see if he keeps to it.