The ongoing war in Afghanistan had noble objectives when it first started in 2001; to eliminate the various violent organizations operating there, namely al-Qaeda. It has indeed defeated these groups and freed the Afghan society, especially Afghan women, from the worst forms of oppression witnessed in the twentieth century. One of the most hopeful scenes in history has been those of a society emerging from one of its darkest times. They were happy scenes of life going back to normal in Kabul as people found freedom, were able to wear the clothes they chose to wear and were no longer forced to grow their beards while music filled the air.
However, with time, the war turned into an internal political card the United States and Congress members could play to achieve mostly internal objectives. Former US President Barak Obama tried to significantly and quickly reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan before a full withdrawal. But he was faced with strong opposition from the military establishment. Former President Donald Trump tried to do the same to bolster his popularity, which was suffering due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Time was not on his side either and he soon left the White House. Recently, President Joe Biden fulfilled this promise by announcing the full withdrawal of American forces next September.
Biden’s announcement coincided with the circulation of a new video showing members of the Taliban prosecuting and flogging a woman fully covered in a blue burqa as she hopelessly pleaded for help from an unsympathetic crowd. There is no doubt that this scene predicts a future reality in this unfortunate country. The Taliban will return with more force and more people will face oppression, especially women. The withdrawal of troops will leave behind a deep moral void and will undermine any trust in the civil forces, whose actions are seen as blatantly opportunistic as they leave millions of people to face their fate alone at the mercy of one of the most violent and brutal terrorist organizations.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken justified the withdrawal by saying the US would monitor the situation in Afghanistan using satellites. This is a mere attempt to justify the withdrawal but the realities of the war on terrorism show that continuous pressure must be put on extremist groups in their homes to prevent the execution of widespread terrorist operations. This is what happened on September 11 in 2001 after al-Qaeda had benefited from a safe haven for years, allowing it to grow stronger, more professional, and capable of executing operations in various locations. Air surveillance was also not capable of eliminating ISIS despite the latter’s expansion over a wide geographic region. ISIS could only be defeated when it was surrounded.
The forthcoming US withdrawal will likely lead to a strategic mistake. Terrorist organizations will choose remote Afghanistan, as they always do, as their favorite destination to reorganize and relaunch their attacks. The withdrawal will also be seen by those sympathetic to these organizations as a defeat, which will in turn increase the recruitment of members into these groups. In an article published in Foreign Policy, former national security adviser John Bolton described this approach to the war on terror as mistaken and short-sighted. This is a strategic, ongoing, and endless war similar to the war against communism that lasted for decades until the latter was defeated. That said, the war on terrorism has been leveraged by local political actors hoping to increase their popularity and guarantee their election by exploiting the weariness of an American public exhausted from these necessary wars. No one talks about the return of US forces stationed for decades in Germany or South Korea because doing so would not achieve any fast electoral gains.
The withdrawal of US forces would constitute a strategic mistake and a moral defeat regardless of the justifications. These forces provided the world with the great service of defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban and killing their leaderships. As the last of them depart, we are left to think about the pain of millions of people who will plead for support in vain just like that flogged woman.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.