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Have the Taliban beaten America?

John Moore/Getty Images

The end of America’s “forever war” is finally in sight, says David Ignatius in The Washington Post. President Biden announced this week that all of the 2,500 or so US troops still in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by 11 September – the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks that precipitated the original invasion. “It’s a gutsy move.” US intelligence analysts have warned that civil war could “quickly erupt”, enabling the Taliban to overthrow the government in Kabul and al-Qaeda to re-establish a safe haven. If that happens, US troops may have to go back in to sort things out – just as they did with Isis in Iraq. Biden’s decision has the support of the American public, but he’s “rolling the dice”.

Rightly so, says Raffaello Pantucci in The Daily Telegraph. What began as an effort to “destroy al-Qaeda and punish those who supported it” has become a “Sisyphean endeavour”. A return to civil war and “warlordism” is, “sadly”, a risk, but Afghanistan’s future ultimately has to be decided by the Afghans themselves.

The Taliban have basically already won, says Hugh Tomlinson in The Times. They’ve “outlasted western firepower”. And since joining US-brokered peace talks last year, they have “conceded nothing” and secured an “unconditional withdrawal” from Washington. That’s no slur on Biden. The peace talks were (and are) unlikely to work, and he was hemmed in by the 1 May withdrawal deadline set by the Trump administration. There were “no good options”.

Not true, says The Economist. Keeping a few thousand troops in Afghanistan to train and assist local forces is neither cripplingly expensive nor especially bloody – “no American soldier has died in combat in over a year”. Abandoning Kabul, on the other hand, will likely lead to “the reimposition of a pious, pre-modern tyranny” – one in which women will lose their hard-earned freedoms and girls will be “stopped from going to school, or killed if they try”.

One thing the US can do, says Fred Kaplan in Slate, is look after the tens of thousands of Afghans who have “put their lives on the line” for us. As a senator, Biden “opposed spending money to bring thousands of South Vietnamese citizens out of the country” at the end of the Vietnam war – a “dishonourable” position he surely regrets. The president must “not repeat his mistake”.

The logistics of withdrawal 

Pulling out of Afghanistan is no easy task, say Ryan Baker and Jonathan Schroden in War on the Rocks. The challenge isn’t getting the troops away – it’s the equipment. About a dozen bases remain, each with stacks of costly vehicles and kit. Anything not worth taking can be destroyed, but only after endless cost comparisons to satisfy the “military bureaucracy”. And, of course, you’ve got to protect those undertaking the withdrawal, which requires further troops and equipment.