BRUSSELS – At its start, America’s war in Afghanistan was about retribution for 9/11. Then it was about shoring up a weak government and its weak army so that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida could never again threaten the United States.
Now it's about over. With bin Laden long since dead and the United States not suffering another major attack, President Joe Biden is promising to end America’s longest war and move on to what he believes are bigger, more consequential challenges posed by a resurgent Russia and a rising China.
Even so, by withdrawing the remaining few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Biden is taking a calculated risk that extremists in Afghanistan can be countered by U.S. and partner forces elsewhere in the region — and that he won’t become the president who underestimated the resilience and reach of extremists who still aim to attack the United States.
CIA Director William Burns told Congress on Wednesday the U.S. unavoidably will lose some intelligence leverage against the extremist threat, although he suggested the losses would be manageable.
“The U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. "It is also a fact, however, that after withdrawal, whenever that time comes, the CIA and all of our partners in the U.S. government will retain a suite of capabilities, some of it remaining in place, some of them that we will generate, that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort.”
There were 2,500 to 3,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office, the smallest number since early in the war. The number peaked at 100,000 during President Barack Obama’s first term. As U.S. war casualties have declined, so has the American public’s attention. The war was barely mentioned during last year’s presidential contest, and pulling the plug may prove politically popular.
Yet worries remain. Stephen Biddle, a Columbia University professor who has advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, says it's possible al-Qaida could re-establish its base structure in Afghanistan once the Americans and their coalition partners leave. The Taliban in Afghanistan pledged in a February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration that they would not allow al-Qaida or other extremist groups to use Afghan territory to threaten the United States. But that deal may be imperiled by Biden's decision not to complete the withdrawal of forces by May 1, as the Trump administration had promised.
The bigger peril, Biddle said in an email exchange, is that the withdrawal could lead to the collapse of Afghan security forces and multi-sided civil warfare involving Taliban factions and others "in a more-lethal version of the civil war of the 1990s.”