On April 14 this year, US President Joe Biden formally announced the end of America’s longest war. The remaining 3,500 US troops stationed in Afghanistan will return home by September 11, 2021 — exactly 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Additional troops from allied nations still stationed in Afghanistan are also expected to withdraw within a similar timeframe. This decision brings an end to a conflict that has claimed well over 100,000 Afghan lives, as well as the lives of over 4,000 Coalition troops. But despite this devastating loss of life, there remains concerns that withdrawal from the country could lead to renewed violence and, in the worst case, the Taliban’s return to power. All of this begs the question: what was it all for?
The Endless War
The War in Afghanistan has become a textbook example of the problem of “Mission Creep”, where military objectives tend to broaden beyond their initial scope. Following the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, topple the regime that harboured them, and prevent Afghanistan from being a future staging ground for terrorist groups by installing a stable, US-friendly government. For the most part, these goals have been achieved. The Taliban Government was ousted and a republican government took its place. Osama Bin Laden, as well as many other Al Qaeda leaders, have been tracked down and eliminated. Any terrorist groups that were operating in Afghanistan have been forced to relocate elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa region.
However, in the process of achieving these goals, the US and its allies have found their mission profile expanding rapidly. Building a lasting, stable democracy in Afghanistan has required investment in education and infrastructure, the modernisation of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the tackling of government corruption and even the reformation of Afghanistan’s prison system to prevent it from being a recruiting ground for the Taliban. The US and its allies have also gone to great lengths to empower women in a society that has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to ensure their equal participation in the democratic process. The results of these efforts have been mixed.