Although US engagement with the Afghan government has helped the latter retain control of 33 per cent of Afghanistan’s districts, including the capital in Kabul, the Taliban still controls nearly 20 per cent of the country and has between 55,000-85,000 full-time fighters, meaning it remains a significant threat.
If the US were to withdraw all its troops, there is the fear that the Taliban will regain control of the country and develop it into a breeding ground for terrorists once more. According to The Times, the Taliban has already claimed victory over America, and a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence explicitly stated that the Afghan government will struggle to ‘hold the Taliban at bay’ if the US and coalition partners withdrew their support.
We have seen the devastating impacts of a premature withdrawal from a conflict with Iraq. In 2007, President George W Bush ordered a surge in Iraqi troops to provide the Iraqi government with the manpower to stabilize the country. By 2011, however, the US had withdrawn the majority of its troops from Iraq, a move that was supported by pro-American Iraqis such as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi – who stated that a continued US presence is not the “answer to the problems of Iraq”.
Even so, after the withdrawal, the Iraqi Army’s capabilities diminished. The lack of preparation meant that when ISIS arrived at Mosul in 2014, the Iraqi military collapsed. Since the Iraqis were unable to defend themselves against ISIS, given the threat ISIS posed, the US had to intervene in the same region it had withdrawn from a few years earlier.
In short, if the United States had maintained its strong military presence in Iraq after 2011, it is possible that the Iraqi army would have been better prepared to respond to the insurgency and potentially reduce ISIS’s geopolitical footprint.
One benefit to the US-led coalition partnership with the Afghan government has been the progress made towards gender equality. When the Taliban governed Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, women were barred from going to school and taking most jobs, yet following the 2001 invasion, many schools reopened and in the past two decades the US has spent more than $780m to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan. Women now comprise 40 per cent of students and have joined the military, held political office, competed in the Olympics, and even joined robotics teams. Biden’s withdrawal throws this progress into jeopardy.
Ultimately the notion that withdrawing from Afghanistan will finish a ‘forever war’ neglects historical precedent and contemporary realities. When discussing foreign intervention, classical liberals may disagree on the merits of these actions, yet Afghanistan is a case where reality must trump ideology because the future of Afghanistan is deeply interconnected with the actions of the U.S. military.
When the US military constructively engages with key actors to mitigate threats and promote democratic systems, both the US and the host country’s interests are served. The alternative may be the return of Afghanistan as a graveyard of empires and a birthplace of terrorism.