Photo: Afghan troops at a training facility run by U.S. special forces in 2010
While standing by the graves of veterans who died at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced April 14 he plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.
“It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he said, then later added that if the Taliban were to attack U.S. troops during the withdrawal, “We’re going to defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.”
The occupation of Afghanistan has lasted two decades. It cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians, thousands of U.S. soldiers, more than $2 trillion in federal spending, and displaced more than 6.5 million people from their homes.
The Trump administration came to an agreement with the Taliban in 2020 that all troops would be removed by May 1 of this year. In March, the Taliban released a statement declaring that if the U.S. government fails to meet this agreed-upon timeline, their forces would be “compelled to … continue its Jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces to liberate its country.”
Many are understandably relieved by Biden’s announcement. It was presented as a certainty without hedging about how the plan could change based on battlefield developments. However, there is good reason for skepticism — and a clear need for the antiwar movement to keep up the pressure on Biden.
After campaigning on a progressive platform including ending the wars and bringing troops home, former President Barack Obama instead vastly increased the number of troops in Afghanistan during his first six months in office. He then pledged to begin withdrawing in 2011, and later said troops would be completely removed by 2014. Over the years, the Pentagon watered down the plan to have most troops withdrawn by 2015, then have just a thousand by 2017.
Former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign also promised to bring the troops home. But in his first year in power, he too increased the number of troops in Afghanistan — and also in Syria and Iraq — while giving the military the power to continue to increase troop levels as they saw fit, without seeking White House approval. Trump also intensified the deadly air war on the country.
Today, there are an estimated 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops still occupying Afghanistan and thousands more NATO troops. This figure does not include private mercenaries, who outnumber regular troops. Their status is a crucial missing detail from Biden’s speech.
Enough broken promises. The U.S. government should withdraw all troops from Afghanistan immediately — and all the other sovereign countries it occupies with more than 800 military bases across the globe — whether or not they meet resistance on the way out. The Biden administration also must not stop at bringing the troops home, but must also remove all the mercenary “private military contractors.” There is no need to wait until September.
However, there is one important unique feature of Biden’s pledge compared to his predecessors. Promises of withdrawals in the past have been “conditions-based” and not set to a strict deadline. Why the change of strategy?
This is a maneuver to put pressure on the Afghan government to reach a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, which they have been resistant to do. The U.S. government knows that a “national unity government” that includes the same Taliban forces they have been waging war on for two decades is the only way they can save face politically and avoid the appearance of a humiliating defeat. The alternative would be to be essentially chased out, or have the Afghan government fall to the Taliban shortly after their withdrawal.
The Biden administration has calculated that if the Afghan authorities know that the clock is ticking, they will feel the pressure much more intensely to strike a deal with the Taliban. It is a high stakes strategy — the Taliban could choose to wait out the U.S. withdrawal deadline and then march on Kabul. If this scenario appears to be materializing, the pressure on Biden from hardline militarists in the United States to extend the occupation will be intense.
A coalition government between the pro-U.S. Afghan authorities and the Taliban could have been created over a decade ago. Then why all this senseless suffering and death?
Liberation News spoke to Michael Davis, an Afghan war veteran and antiwar activist:
“I also can’t help but wonder what was accomplished now that wasn’t accomplished when I was in Afghanistan in 2011-2012, after the death of Bin Laden. Biden was a part of the second and now fourth administration that has led U.S. involvement, not to mention a part of the push that led to war in the first place under Bush; they invaded Afghanistan when I was 11. Was the loss of human life worth it? Reflecting on it just fills me with sadness and rage.”
For more historical background on U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, listen to the episode of the podcast The Socialist Program “When U.S. Empire Waged War vs. Socialism in Afghanistan: 1978-1990s”