Departure from the West after a costly failure

US President Joe Biden this week ended what has come to be called ‘the endless war’. The 2,500 American soldiers still in Afghanistan are being repatriated. The other NATO countries, including the Netherlands, will also withdraw their military personnel, 7,500 in total, in the coming months.

This puts an end for the West to twenty years of military interference with a country on the other side of the world. This puts an end to an immense operation with high costs, an operation that has largely failed.

After nearly twenty years of war in Afghanistan, the bill can only be estimated approximately. There are only estimates circulating about Afghan victims: 110,000 civilians and military personnel were said to have died and more than 42,000 Taliban. In addition, 2,419 American soldiers were killed and 20,500 injured. NATO allies lost 1,145 soldiers, 25 of whom were Dutch. At least 424 aid workers and 67 journalists died. The US has spent nearly $ 1,000 billion, according to conservative estimates.

The war was the US response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 civilians. After just a few days, President George W. Bush knew what to do: respond to attacks and eradicate evil. The attacks were committed by the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, which had previously hit US targets. Al-Qaeda operated out of Afghanistan, but the strict Islamic Taliban in power there refused to extradite the man behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

With support from NATO, which stated that the attack on the US was an attack on all allies under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom. Purpose two-fold: Destroy Al-Qaeda and liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban. Al-Qaeda was largely expelled from Afghanistan, bin Laden was killed in Pakistan ten years later. There have been no more attacks on the West from Afghanistan – that is the profit of the war.

But Afghanistan was not liberated from the Taliban. On the contrary. The strict Islamic movement was the discussion partner in peace talks with the US about the withdrawal last year. And the intention is that she will reach an agreement with the government in Kabul about the future of the country.

If such an agreement is not reached, there is a chance that the Taliban will take over by force in the country within two or three years, secret services warned the US president. It is also possible that local warlords will intervene with their militias. It is therefore quite conceivable that NATO’s departure will lead to more violence.

If the Taliban, with or without force, gains more say in the long run, the question is whether the modest progress made in the reconstruction of Afghanistan will be sustained. Gradually, the aim of the war shifted from counter-terrorism to nation-building. The West wanted to make Afghanistan a modern country, a country with more prosperity, more democracy, more rights for women and education for girls.

Afghanistan made progress, but only marginally. The position of women was improved and schools for girls were opened, but Afghanistan is at the bottom of the UN women’s rights index. The economy grew, infrastructure improved, poverty and illiteracy were tackled, but the country still depends on foreign aid for 60 percent of its income.

The US has pledged to continue to support the Afghan government diplomatically. Washington will also remain vigilant for a possible resurrection of terrorist organizations in the country – to prevent the proceeds of the war from being wasted.

Afghanistan’s future is far from bright. Joe Biden concluded this week that the US and its allies are unable to permanently influence the country’s course. That is a realistic, but, given the costs in life and money, also a painful observation. Afghanistan, again, has shown the limits of Western’s ability to model a country after itself from the outside. The US also learned that lesson in Vietnam. The withdrawal also marks the end of an era when a supreme US thought it could do anything.
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