Is the Forever War… Forever Over?

Following the gut-wrenching terrorist attacks initiated by the militant Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda, former U.S. President George W. Bush launched a War on Terror.“The United States of America will use all our resources to conquer this enemy,” Bush said in his national address. “We will rally the world. We will be patient. We’ll be focused, and we will be steadfast in our determination. This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win.”

Twenty years later, President Biden declared the official withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan—signifying the end of the “forever war.” However, the consequences to Afghan governance and security, international terrorism, cultural dynamics, power relations, economic livelihood and humanitarian rights remains inauspicious. The Taliban and its influence is far more powerful than it was in 2001— according to the BBC, they have more than 60,000 fighters, and took full control of Afghanistan within days of the United States’ withdrawal. It remains uncertain whether Afghanistan will become a haven for international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the consequences of the United States’ departure from the nation are apparent.

The War in Afghanistan has lasted through three full presidential administrations, with each failing to establish peaceful relations and a successful military exit. According to Brown University, the conflict has cost more than $2 trillion, and has caused the death of over 2,000 troops. More than 170,000 Afghans have died, as well. Despite this, the United States has little to show for its decades-long War on Terror. The Biden administration’s miscalculation of the Taliban’s political power has resulted in the miscalculation of political strategy. “We underestimate the difficulty of bringing order to societies where order has broken down—or where it never really existed,” wrote David Von Drehle, an American author and journalist for The Washington Post. “And we overestimate the durability of whatever order we manage to provide.” 

The Taliban has been patiently advancing their relevance and influence for the past two decades. Last spring, Taliban forces controlled the Afghan countryside and its road networks. Fighters were deliberately positioned to capture the remaining parts of Afghanistan after U.S. troops began evacuating, and that is exactly what they have done.

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement last year in an effort to end the “forever war,” without the involvement of the Afghan government. The agreement concentrated on counterterrorism, decreasing violence and withdrawing U.S. soldiers. According to the agreement, the Taliban will “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” However, according to a United Nations 2021 report, the Taliban has not stopped its correspondence with al-Qaeda. The United States’ rapid withdrawal from the country—even though the Taliban has failed to meet the initial conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement—has caused the United States to lose all political leverage. What’s more, the United States’ disinterest in the war has led to the failure to protect our Afghan allies and their families. 

Many experts have pointed out how the fall of Kabul can be compared to the fall of Saigon after the US withdrawal from Vietnam. “The US population didn’t object to the troop withdrawal from Vietnam because it was weary of the televised nightly bloodbath,” The Washington Post editorial board writes. “The moral failure was that the United States refused to keep its solemn promises to the Vietnamese. Now, former ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker and others worry about the consequences of a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and warn of a new Vietnam tragedy.”

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 18 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance. Approximately one-third of Afghanistan’s population is suffering from severe malnourishment, including more than 50% of children. Moreover, conflict between Taliban and resistance forces are worsening humanitarian issues. 

“It has been quite heartbreaking, especially in the past week, receiving a vast amount of calls to our ASPRN crisis helpline, where people have been reporting executions and beatings, and clampdown on media and radio stations,” said Najeeba Wazedafost, CEO of the Asia Pacific Refugee Network. “They have been reporting to us about Taliban door-to-door searches, targeted killings and looting in the capital. And again, we have been hearing about schools, and hospitals, and thousands of homes being attacked.” 

Major concerns have been raised for women’s rights. During the 1990s, Afghan women’s access to healthcare, education, and employment was seriously restricted under Taliban rule. Women could not attend school or leave their house without a male chaperone. Such laws were enforced by the “religious police” through public beatings, arrests and executions. The Taliban have indicated their dedication to “upholding and guaranteeing all rights of women afforded to them by Islamic law.” Afghan women have been protesting against the Taliban government for the past month, holding signs that say “we want equal rights, we want women in government.” The Taliban have responded with devastating force: releasing tear gas, beating protestors with batons and firing weapons into the air.

With all U.S. troops officially evacuated, it is uncertain whether the Taliban will successfully establish peace and stability within Afghanistan. The humanitarian, cultural, political and economic implications of U.S. withdrawal has created a very discouraging reality. The U.S. government cannot just simply wipe the dust off their feet, flee Afghanistan, and never look back. Although President Biden has said that the United States government will remain engaged with Afghanistan via security, the descriptions of those efforts still remain largely unseen. Our eagerness to finally end the “forever war” does not mean that it is “forever over.” As Afghans face a stark new reality, it is evident that the war has only ended for some, not all.

There are a number of ways to help Afghanistan and Afghan refugees. Below is a list of organizations accepting aid and donations in the St. Louis area and beyond: