U.S. and NATO withdraw from "the forever war"

What we should all know about Afghanistan

United States and NATO troops are leaving Afghanistan after 20 years, despite the fact that the Taliban is still advancing. The German Bundeswehr is already out. Sandra Petersmann examines the key issues

On 14 April, United States President Joe Biden told Americans when their country's longest war would finally end:

"I'm now the fourth U.S. president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth."

Biden delivered his address in the White House Treaty Room. It was in this same room that George W. Bush had announced the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan on 7 October 2001:

"On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime."

Between these two statements lie 20 years of war and terror.

Why did the U.S. and its allies attack Afghanistan?

The beginning was driven by retaliation. The U.S. had determined that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network were responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, DC, which killed 2,977 people.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum (also known as the 9/11 Memorial & Museum) is a memorial and museum in New York City commemorating the September 11, 2001 attacks, which killed 2,977 people (photo: Turjoy Chowdhury/NurPhoto)
Invoking the mutual defence clause: fundamental to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the understanding that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members. NATO has, however, only invoked Article 5 once in its history – in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. George W. Bush announced the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan on 7 October 2001: "On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime"

Bin Laden had been running al-Qaida from Afghanistan since the fundamentalist Taliban seized power in 1996.

Just one day after the September 11 attacks, for the first time the NATO alliance invoked its mutual defence clause, according to which an attack on one member can be seen as an attack on all. On the same day, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1368, condemning the terrorist attacks and reaffirming the right to individual or collective self-defence.

On 7 October 2001, the United States and United Kingdom conducted their first airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Why did U.S.-led NATO forces stay in the country for two decades?

The primary U.S. goal was to hunt down Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. But there was never a clear exit strategy. 

The troops stayed when the U.S. launched another war, in Iraq in 2003. They also stayed after U.S. special forces had killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 – albeit that operation happened not in Afghanistan, but in neighbouring Pakistan, where he had apparently lived for at least five years.

"We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago, and we've stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since. Since then, our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear, even as the terrorist threat we went to fight evolved," Biden said on 14 April in the Treaty Room. "American troops shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries," the president added.

President of the United States Joe Biden (photo: Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)
No clear exit strategy: the troops stayed when the U.S. launched another war, in Iraq in 2003. They also stayed after U.S. special forces had killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 – albeit that operation happened not in Afghanistan, but in neighbouring Pakistan, where he had apparently lived for at least five years. "We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago, and we've stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since. Since then, our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear, even as the terrorist threat we went to fight evolved," Biden said on 14 April in the Treaty Room. "American troops shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries"

The decision to pull out is also an admission of failure. In fact, U.S. and NATO forces were sucked ever deeper into power dynamics that they had created themselves: to eliminate al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the Western coalition had partnered with warlords such as Mohammed Fahim and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who have been accused of atrocities. Both men were appointed to terms as vice president during the decades that the U.S. and NATO have been in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan had already experienced more than two decades of continuous war before U.S. jets dropped their first bombs in 2001. From 1979 to 1989, the occupying Soviet forces battled loosely allied U.S.-backed resistance fighters, many of whom would seek competing fates for Afghanistan when the Kremlin pulled out its troops, giving way to the still-unresolved civil war. The warlords' brutal struggle with one another destroyed the capital, Kabul, and led to the Taliban's seizing of power.

Despite the complex history off alliances, the Taliban's opponents were perceived to be NATO's partners. The West invested billions of dollars into the goal of building a democratic Afghanistan after the Taliban's swift fall in December 2001. The U.S. flatly refused to negotiate with officials from the toppled Islamist regime, many of whom fled toward Pakistan. The seeds were sown for new violence, new terror and rampant corruption.

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