How the War in Afghanistan Ended and What Lies Ahead

On August 30, the U.S. Military withdrew from Afghanistan one day ahead of the planned departure deadline, drawing an end to the longest war in U.S. history. The internal Afghan conflicts and turmoil, however, seem to have only just begun. 

“I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war,” said President Biden in July when asked if he trusted the Taliban. Yet, despite President Biden’s attempts to defend the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated at a rate unseen in the two decades of war. The Taliban’s campaign to resume control of the country accelerated almost as soon as American troops started to withdraw in May. After seizing Zaranj, a provincial capital on the Afghanistan-Iran border, 14 more provincial capitals fell to the Taliban within the next week. Finally, the Taliban seized control of the capital city, Kabul, for the second time in 25 years on August 15, just hours after President of the Afghan Republic, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. 

So far, the Taliban has refrained from inflammatory rhetoric and committed to building a fair and “inclusive government,” according to Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen. There will be “no risks to [Afghan people’s] property, to their lives or to their honor,” Shaheen told CNN. He promised that Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, the Afghan government, or international NGOs will be granted amnesty as well as pledging to maintain the rights obtained by Afghan women over the past two decades. The credibility of his promises, however, is questionable. Taliban gunmen have gone door-to-door in neighborhoods of Kabul in search of those who supported the American forces or the former government. As recently as July, Taliban gunmen walked into offices in the Azizi Bank in the southern city of Kandahar and escorted female workers back to their homes, ordering to have their male relatives take the positions in their place. Additionally, the Taliban has cracked down a number of independent journalists.

Prompted by fears of the same repressive regime from the Taliban’s last reign—a fear based on ample lived experience—scores of Afghans fled to the Kabul airport in hopes of escaping the Talibansince the takeover. In desperation, some even tried to cling to departing U.S. military planes. Chaos at the airport reached a pinnacle on August 26, when a suicide attack killed as many as 180 people, 13 of whom were American troops. The terrorist attack became the deadliest of the war, and the 13 Americans became the first service members to die in Afghanistan since February 2020. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” said President Biden as he addressed the organizers of this attack, the group known as Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K. Founded in 2015 as an Afghan affiliate of the ISIS group in the Middle East, ISIS-K embodies a more extreme and unyielding version of Islam than the Taliban. The group, like other terrorist groups, sees the U.S. as its main enemy, but it also has openly denounced Taliban for their version of Islam being insufficiently hardline. 

ISIS-K, as well as the threat of strict Taliban rule in Afghanistan, both hint that while the war in Afghanistan has ended, the United States has yet to “turn the page” on its wars. However, President Biden would have the world believe this is not the case. He announced during a September speech at the United Nations, “for the first time in 20 years, the United States is not at war. We’ve turned the page.” Although American troops are no longer stationed in Afghanistan, America’s wars in the Middle East are far from over. In fact, just the day before President Biden’s speech, a U.S. drone fired a missile that killed a suspected Al-Qaeda leader in Northwestern Syria. Today, there are still more than 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East, and they “are not coming home,” as Democrat New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski disclosed during the September 2021 congressional testimony from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. “They are merely moving to other bases in the same region to conduct the same counterterrorism missions, including in Afghanistan,” Malinowski elaborated. President Biden has sought to draw attention away from such efforts: the majority of these troops are not likely to have “routine engagement in combat,” he described in a June 2021 letter to the Congress. The definition of war, therefore, may be constructed around the degree of U.S. foreign involvement in conflicts, as has traditionally been the case with former presidents. The withdrawal at most reflects a desire by the Biden Administration of a more hands-off policy to limit the costs of military engagement; the arrangement, however, will also risk leaving the U.S. in a more reactive position to future conflicts. Regardless, the “tragic mistake” that was the August 29 drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians but “was not the last act of our war,” said Rep. Malinowski. “It was unfortunately the first act of the next stage of our war,” Malinowski added, making it abundantly clear that the U.S.’s “forever wars” in the Middle East will continue, albeit in the form of shadow wars. Meanwhile, life in Afghanistan has been radically upturned by the Taliban takeover with or without future U.S. involvement.