InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 18

Has the US achieved war aims in Afghanistan?

The United States has made an important declaration that it has achieved war aims in Afghanistan as Al-Qaeda is no longer a threat to its security. Washington has also announced that the terror threat has moved from Afghanistan to elsewhere.

Already, US President Joe Biden Junior has announced pulling out all of its remaining around 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by September 9, this year. This is the date when the US would complete almost 20 years of its presence in Afghanistan. During the years, the US troops have mostly been in combat mode. The US along with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and International Security & Assistance Force (ISAF) had occupied Afghanistan after dislodging the Afghan Taliban regime in October 2001, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the American mainland by Afghanistan-based Al-Qaeda. The attacks and the following occupation of Afghanistan by the US and allies triggered a Global War on Terror (GWoT) whose main target was Al-Qaeda, which had set up a large network in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Washington and allies ousted the Taliban regime as it refused to hand over the Al Qaeda founder and head, Osama bin Laden, who had claimed the attacks on America.

The claim that Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is no longer a threat came from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Defending his country’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, he said the “terror” threat had moved elsewhere and that Washington needed to refocus resources on challenges such as China and the pandemic. “The terrorism threat has moved to other places. And we have very important items on our agenda, including the relationship with China, including dealing with everything from climate change to COVID-19,” Blinken told ABC’s This Week programme.

Blinken said the US had “achieved the objectives that we set out to achieve”. “Al-Qaeda has been significantly degraded. Its capacity to conduct an attack against the United States now from Afghanistan is not there,” he said. His statements are important in the context of the longest war in US history. It may be mentioned that formerly the US war in Vietnam was the longest of America’s history but the present war in Afghanistan surpassed it in terms of the years of the US combat forces presence in the country. Insofar as the claim of the US Secretary of State that the Al-Qaeda potential to attack the US from Afghanistan was no more there is a critical development for the US homeland security. It may be mentioned that the US, before coming to Afghanistan, was motivated by the necessity to prevent any future attacks from Al-Qaeda. It could have been achieved by establishing a proper state structure there, so that militant groups, like the Taliban, could not fill the power-political vacuum and then invite non-state militant outfits, like Al Qaeda, to pose a threat to the security of other states. The US, along with its western partners, gave Afghanistan a modern political system and for the first time a constitutional government came into existence in 2002, and former anti-Taliban militant commander, Hamid Karzai, became the first President. Since then, there have been at least four Presidential elections in Afghanistan and there is a semblance of a political-democratic system in the country. But the political system in Afghanistan could not give the much-needed internal stability to the country as a large number of Afghans consider that it has been imposed by the western countries. This has also been the stand of the Taliban, who have been going from strength to strength in all these 20 years and at no point they could have been decisively defeated. Even at a time in 2012, there were around 100,000 foreign troops, mostly American in Afghanistan, but they could not trounce the Taliban. Whereas, the main target, Al Qaeda, shifted its bases from Afghanistan to the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where most of its key leaders were killed in US drone and missile attacks. On the other hand, Bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad by the US Special Operations Forces in an authorized operation on Pakistani territory in 2011, while the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, had been arrested from Rawalpindi.

All these years, the US has been trying to deny Al-Qaeda a foothold in Afghanistan and it has been quite successful in this regard. However, it has also been due to the Taliban distancing themselves from Al-Qaeda and dubbing their militancy as a war of national liberation and nothing to do with Al-Qaeda’s concept of global war on infidels. This stand of the Taliban paved the way for the US accepting it as a legitimate political group with which talks could be held and negotiations have been staged on a number of occasions. The talks resulted in last year’s significant agreement between the US and the Taliban, under which Washington will pull out all its troops from Afghanistan, the main demand of the Taliban. However, the new deadline for the troops’ withdrawal by President Biden is aimed at buying time to observe the situation in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban have condemned the extension to the date of withdrawal, yet it was in a muffled manner and they may not have much problem with the presence of US troops in Afghanistan for another few months.

As the US thinks that Al-Qaeda is no longer a threat to its security from Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether Al-Qaeda would emerge as a threat to the South Asian region. It must be mentioned that Al-Qaeda had developed its South Asian branch years back by the name of Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Although it could not make large-scale terrorist attacks, yet there is a possibility that once the US troops from Afghanistan leave, members of AQIS may strongly regroup. Such a scenario would be a great miscalculation on part of Washington. The US troops would be withdrawing from Afghanistan when the country is not stable and there is every possibility that it may be pushed to another bloody civil war, which may suck in religious militant groups from the whole region. It would be a doomsday scenario for the whole world, especially the US.