The U.S. military is on track to end its almost two-decade-long engagement in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, with Bagram air base, a major installation near Kabul and the last operated by American troops, being handed to Afghan government control on July 1.
The pullout, to be completed in late August, will see the last regular U.S. personnel leave Kabul, the national capital, and the nearby international airport. However, several hundred troops will remain to guard the American Embassy and other select locations.
U.S. President Joe Biden had set Sept. 11 as the deadline for the withdrawal, in commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the Manhattan World Trade Center, killed more than 3,000 people, and led to the War on Terror in which the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The withdrawal began in early 2020, after the Trump administration reached an agreement with the radical Islamic Taliban insurgency.
More than 2,400 U.S. personnel have died in the war, while another 22,000 were wounded. U.S.-backed Afghan forces have seen 65,000 killed, with a similar number of dead on the side of the Taliban and affiliated militant groups. A 2021 estimate by Brown University places the number of civilian dead at 47,000. Tens of thousands more have been killed outside of Afghanistan as a result of the war, most of them in neighboring Pakistan.
The U.S. has spent $2.2 trillion on the Afghanistan portion of the War on Terror alone, per the Brown University report.
Al-Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist organization that committed the 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban, which harbored al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, remain active in Afghanistan, though bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in 2011.
The longest war
Running nearly 20 years, the operation in Afghanistan is the longest war fought by the United States. However, the last conflict in which Congress officially declared war was World War II.
Decades of reinforcement by the U.S. and its allies have allowed Afghan government forces to hold Kabul and other strategic regions. However, they struggle against the Taliban elsewhere due to the terrorists’ hit-and-run attacks, infiltration of the government forces, and persistent presence among Afghanistan’s impoverished rural population.
American officials have acknowledged that the present U.S. withdrawal could have undesirable consequences, but see no good alternatives.
White press secretary Jen Psaki said on July 2 that Biden felt “that the war in Afghanistan was not one that could be won militarily,” and added that assessments of the planned withdrawal “did not sugarcoat what the likely outcomes would be.”
Afghanistan has suffered more than 40 years of foreign invasion and civil war since 1979, when the Soviet Union sent troops to prop up a friendly communist government. The Soviets left a decade later, and the Afghan government collapsed in the 1990s, giving way to a civil war in which the Taliban fought the U.S.-friendly Northern Alliance.
Afghanistan’s fate uncertain
Bagram airfield, first used by the pre-communist Afghan military and then the Soviet armed forces, was the center of U.S. and coalition military activity. Located about 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from Kabul, it was described by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby as a “key hub for air support for everything that we were doing over there for the last 20 years,” Voice of America reported.
“All Coalition and American troops have departed Bagram Air Base last night,” Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) spokesman Fawad Aman said on July 2. “The base was handed over to the ANDSF. ANDSF will protect base and use it to combat terrorism.”
But the ANDSF has an uphill battle ahead of it.
VOA cited the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal as saying that the Taliban have doubled their territory since the beginning of the withdrawal. Thousands of Afghan troops have been killed in 2021 alone.
There were around 3,500 American troops and another 7,000 coalition soldiers in country at the beginning of July, down from the peak in August 2010 when there were more than 100,000 American servicemen and women in Afghanistan.
In contrast with Afghanistan, the U.S. has no plans to fully withdraw from Iraq, which was invaded in 2003 during the administration of President George W. Bush. The invasion, justified by dubious claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, toppled the Hussein regime. Hussein, a sadistic and militaristic leader who invaded Iran and Kuwait — and was supported by both the U.S. and Soviet Union during the war against Iran — was executed in 2006.
U.S. occupation did not prevent Iraq from falling into violent chaos. Insurgent warfare claimed the lives of thousands and culminated in the formation of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group that overran much of the Near East. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives in the war since 2003, as well as more than 4,500 American troops.
Attempts to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq have been stymied by the need to support the local government against ISIS and other terrorist organizations.