One year after Trump’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad struck a deal with the Taliban which included the removal of all US troops by May 1, 2021, President Biden has announced full troop withdrawal by September 11, 2021 to finally end ‘the forever war’. But at its core, this is a decision based on problematic assumptions about war termination, a misreading of contemporary conflicts, and is unlikely either to end the war in Afghanistan or satisfy US national interests.
The US negotiated the February 2020 agreement unilaterally, excluding the Afghan government while imposing concessions for a promised reduction in violence, which never materialized. The United Nations (UN) reports more than 10,000 Afghan civilians have died since the agreement was signed, with a steep increase in targeted assassinations against the ‘new Afghanistan’ - journalists, working women, human rights defenders, public servants, religious figures, and even health workers.
While some dismiss the current terrorist threat as overblown, recent assessments from the Pentagon, NATO, and the UN reveal the Taliban have linked themselves even more closely with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. The Pentagon assessment foresees a Taliban takeover after a precipitous withdrawal, but most predict it will start a new phase of conflict with state collapse followed by a regionalized civil war, ethnic cleansing, and large-scale refugee flows towards Europe.
The current debate on ending ‘forever wars’ is based on unrealistic assumptions. Since World War II, a binary view of how wars end was held by the US - you win or you lose and troops come home. But the Greek civil war, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, and a Europe rapidly transformed into two armed camps sitting on the edge of a nuclear precipice shows World War II did not ‘end’ in 1945.
There was also no troop withdrawal afterwards with the US stationing 250,000 troops in Europe, while another 30,000 still buttress the peace in the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The Cold War confrontation took another 45 years to wind down and then precipitated a round of ‘new wars’ which continue to bedevil policymakers, academics and practitioners.
The real ‘forever’ is the list of unresolved conflicts around the world. Rising demands for inclusive peace processes stem from growing evidence that inclusion matters for sustainable peace. Conflicts are ever more complex and more than half of all peace agreements collapse within five years. The Dayton Agreement for ethnic power-sharing in Bosnia stopped the killings but 60,000 NATO troops were needed to oversee it and, 25 years on, the peace remains fragile and depends on the presence of a small peacekeeping force, generous EU money, and strong commitment to preventing its breakdown.
Drawing historical analogies can be a flawed exercise, but Vietnam resembles Afghanistan more closely than other conflicts. There, the key quandary for the US was withdrawal rather than peace. Unlike in Bosnia where international forces provide a security guarantee to sustain an unstable peace agreement, peace discussions on Afghanistan are linked to an exit strategy for all US troops and will inevitably accelerate violence, while the promise of continued financial support to the Afghan state and security forces hangs in the balance following US withdrawal. The US issued the same ‘IOU’ when it withdrew from Vietnam. One year later, Congress cut off all aid.
But even more unrealistic are proposals suggesting the US can magically return as it did in Iraq because this ignores the costs to US interests, including its relationship with European and NATO partners; regional instability; the Afghan army, which could collapse, and the abandonment of an entire generation that fought hard for its freedoms.
President Biden promised full troop withdrawal but the White House has remained silent on how it will contain the terrorism problem. Whether the U.S. depends on special forces, outsourcing to mercenary contractors or on long-distance airpower, this will make the new phase of the war invisible to the American public and therefore substantially less accountable.
The US counterterrorism effort against the Islamic State in Raqqa, waged from the air with ‘legal precision’ and risk-free for US soldiers, shows the civilian destruction and future which awaits Afghan civilians should this happen. Thousands of Syrian civilians died, entire communities destroyed, and it has not prevented Islamic State from restarting an insurgency, raising important questions on what it means to end forever wars.
The rationale for a withdrawal stems from a historical memory loss that fails to recognize how we got here and how Afghanistan has changed in the last 20 years. What we see today, far from being inevitable, took years of mistakes to create. US policy decisions refused Taliban surrender post-2001 and instead focused on settling scores militarily and privileged strongmen, inducing the Taliban to regroup and launch an insurgency in the winter of 2005.
Today, stories of destruction and corruption dominate media headlines and have convinced the US public the situation is irretrievable. Although grave challenges remain, a significant generational transformation is underway, with an unequivocal demand for peace among the Afghan people. Most Afghans are under the age of 30, and more than half of public sector employees under 40, while women have made significant advances, reclaiming their rights in public roles and spaces.
The current Islamic constitution is seen as a people’s constitution, having come out of an inclusive process involving hundreds of thousands of Afghans at a time of relative stability. Afghanistan may not be Switzerland - as critics often say - but then no-one should expect a magical transformation of a devastated society in only 20 years. And Afghans did not ask to be Switzerland.
The state’s institutions are imperfect and fragile but deliver critical services in security, health, and education, while the new Afghan defence and security forces are professionalizing and are seen by the people as both a symbol and instrument of national unity.
But the US and NATO programmes did not provide autonomous capacity in terms of intelligence, logistics, and airpower, and the Afghan forces cannot maintain themselves without outside money, training, and equipment. With proper support, Afghan security forces could hold against the Taliban until the latter accept to deal with the Afghan republic as its negotiation partner instead of doing an ‘end run’ with the US.
Afghan security forces also have primary responsibility to deal with terrorists operating from their soil. Recent moves away from multilateral approaches to addressing Afghanistan threaten to reinforce conflict dynamics, as regional powers increasingly intervene in support of different actors. Afghanistan’s allies and regional actors must double-down on efforts to bring the region together around a diplomatic, peace and security framework to prevent a security vacuum, which would be in no one's interests. In particular, efforts need to focus on inducing Pakistan to end its sanctuary and military support to the Taliban.
US allies, especially Europe, and other partners need to ensure that financial, diplomatic and technical support remain a priority in Afghanistan. The spillover effects of a regionalised war in Afghanistan will be felt in Europe immediately. Improved coordination with Afghanistan’s allies, near and far, and call for a more significant role for the UN is a start, but needs better alignment on goals and approach.
The issue at hand is not troop numbers but the development of an integrated peace and security framework to protect civilians, ensure stability, and contain terrorism. Immediate costs to the alliance, international stability, and the region far exceeds the long-term cost of supporting the Afghan people, the Afghan national security forces, and advancing a genuine peace process with proper security guarantees.
Ending the forever wars responsibly and realistically requires careful planning and consideration but a debate continually constrained by, and obsessed with, troop numbers only prevents thorough discussion on all the essential issues required to achieve a durable peace.
Marika Theros is a policy fellow at the London School of Economics, and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.
Sahar Halaimzai is an Afghan-British rights advocate, writer and human rights campaigner, and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.