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The endgame of America’s longest war has begun with the troops due to be home by 11 September, the symbolic deadline for a mission which has continued since the Twin Towers attacks two decades ago, at great cost to lives, money, and questions about its ultimate purpose.
It is highly unlikely that President Joe Biden will declare victory, as George W Bush did after US and British troops invaded the country and overthrew the regime of Mullah Omar. It is also unlikely that there will be any grand ceremonies when the forces return. The farewells will, instead, be quiet and sombre.
The troops will leave behind an Afghanistan facing an uncertain future amid fear that the Taliban will take over swathes of the country they do not already control and impose an unforgiving version of Sharia law with grim consequences for human rights and hard won advances made by women.
It is also unlikely that any international leader will say, as Tony Blair did when Bush was proclaiming victory, that “this time we will not walk away” as had been the case when the West and its allies used the Mujaheddin to drive out the Russians at the end of the Eighties.
Afghanistan was then left to sink into a savage civil war, appalling poverty, becoming the breeding ground for terrorism from where Islamist extremism, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, took a bloody jihad to Europe and America.
In reality, British and American forces did walk away again in 2001, to Iraq for a war based on false claims of Saddam Hussein’s possession weapons of mass destruction, just when Afghanistan needed to be stabilised.
The Taliban, fed and watered by their backers in the Pakistani military and intelligence service, ISI, came back across the border to exploit the vacuum in security and begin the strife which, at its height, drew in an international force of 130,000.
There are currently around 2,500 American and 7,000 Nato other international troops, including 750 British, in Afghanistan. Most of the non-American forces may pull out by early July, with the American ones leaving rural areas and basing themselves in cities in the final few weeks.
Under an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban which took place in Doha, and was presented effectively as a fait accompli to the Afghan government in February last year, the insurgents were supposed to stop their bombings and shootings while talks continued and prisoners were exchanged.
Attacks on Americans have scaled down significantly but those on Afghan government forces and civilians have continued. Some of the deaths have been targeted assassinations of civic society leaders, human rights workers, academics and journalists.
Meanwhile the vast majority of Taliban detainees, including the “high value” hardcore ones, responsible for some of the worst massacres of the conflict, were released.
The first of May, under the Trump administration deal, was meant to be the finish of the troop withdrawal rather than the start. The Taliban had warned that they will resume hostilities against international forces if the Americans delayed the pullout.
Asked if the international forces would be attacked up to September, Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the insurgency said: “It’s too early for these issues, nothing can be said about the future. We do not know what will happen.”
Al-Qaeda says that dates are also of importance to them. This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden, the author of the 9/11 attacks, who was tracked down and killed by the US special forces Seal Team 6, at his hiding place in the Pakistani army’s cantonment city of Abbottabad.
US and British security officials, as well as those in Afghanistan, where there is a growing al-Qaeda presence, say they expect attempts at retribution for Bin Laden’s death. CNN stated that two al-Qaeda members have threatened the “war against the US will be continuing on all fronts”. According to the report, the men praised the Taliban for continuing their fight: “Thanks to Afghans for the protection of comrades-in-arms, many such jihadi fronts have been successfully operating in different parts of the Islamic world for a long time.”
It is not a matter of great surprise that Biden continued with Trump’s policy of disengaging from Afghanistan. He was a sceptic about US military presence while Barack Obama’s Vice-President and he argued, unsuccessfully at the time, over the surges of troops requested by the commanders.
Biden had also become a trenchant critic of what he saw as endemic corruption among the Afghan hierarchy, upbraiding President Hamid Karzai on the issue during visits to Kabul.
At the end, the change of occupancy at the White House bought just four months for American and British military chiefs who wanted a more lengthy drawn-out detachment.
Previous US withdrawal plans envisaged special forces units as well as air support for the Afghan army and police being left behind after the main bulk of the force withdraws.
Admiral William McRaven, who as head of US Special Operations Command was in charge of the Bin Laden operation, held, “are we going to need some people on the ground? We’re going to need at least a small footprint at Bagram [airbase], we are going to need a small footprint in the capital. We’re going to need intelligence resources, I think the administration will figure out how to manage that”.
William Burns, the CIA director acknowledged at a recent Congressional hearing that military presence has benefited America’s ability to counter terrorist threat from Afghanistan, and “the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish, that’s simply a fact”.
Burns continued, “after the withdrawal the CIA and all of our partners… the US government will retain a suite of capabilities, some of it remaining in place, some of them we will generate, that can help us to anticipate and contest any [terrorist] rebuilding effort”.
But it remains unclear what Western military or intelligence assets can be left behind in Afghanistan under the terms of the Doha agreement. The Taliban has insisted that everything must go and President Biden has announced a complete withdrawal of forces.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was envoy at the UN during Mullah Omar’s regime, and keeps in touch with the current leadership, said, “as far as I know the agreement is for all foreign forces to leave, that is what the Taliban will expect from a peace agreement. I do not think that having fought so long to get foreign forces to leave, they will say, ‘all right you get to choose which of you will stay’.”
The overwhelming majority of Afghans crave peace after decades of war but there is also deep trepidation of what the future holds.
Abdul-Samad Ghulam, an electrician in Kabul, a married man with four children, told The Independent: “All my life I have known nothing but bombings and killings. I do not want my boys and girls to go through that. The politicians have done nothing for us; we really need a peace agreement, after that we will place our trust in God, what else can we do?”
But Ferhana, 19, studying chemistry at Kabul University, was full of foreboding about what having the Taliban back in power would mean for her and her friends.
Ferhana, who did not want her family name published, said: “We know that the Taliban have made some promises but the language they use like we will be all right as long as we wear the right kind of hijab is very worrying.
“Some people say the Americans should have got some definite promises from the Taliban. But that would have meant nothing, they would just have been words, easily forgotten,” she told The Independent.