Just as it had begun, the US occupation of Afghanistan has ended, within the deadline agreed with Taliban and without any attempt by Washington to extend its military involvement in the country. The close to 20 years that American troops spent in Afghanistan marks the longest war the country has fought. The outcome though signifies a loss of face for the US as the Taliban, whom it had arrived to oust, are now back stronger and ready again to establish an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. The US mission, overseen by four Presidents — beginning with George W Bush and ending with Joe Biden — racked up a cumulative bill of reportedly over $2 trillion; here’s a look at how the occupation panned out for the troops and civilians.
What Was The Trajectory Of US Troop Deployment?
It was on April 14 this year that Biden declared that US is calling time on the ‘forever war’ and American soldiers would completely clear out of Afghanistan by the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which had seen them invade the isolated, mountainous country in the first place. The decision was shaped by a deal that Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had agreed with the Taliban at peace talks in Qatar’s Doha.
The US deemed that it had achieved its primary objective of bringing al Qaeda to book for planning the terror strikes on its soil and, after extracting the promise from Taliban that it will not allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terror actors, saw little meaning in continuing with an occupation that has left thousands of soldiers and civilians dead.
The first US troops had landed in Afghanistan within weeks of the 9/11 strike and the slow trickle that started with a little over 5,000 troops entering the country in 2002 would soon turn into a tide. Between 2010 and 2011, during the years Barack Obama was president, more than 100,000 US troops were sent to Afghanistan. But US troop presence kept declining sinec then, barring a brief period during the Trump presidency when deployment was again increased. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a July report that at the end of the drawdown 650 troops would remain in Afghanistan.
But as a ghostly photo of Maj. Gen. Chris Donaghue, commander of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division, was circulated online on August 31 with the caption that he was the last US soldier to leave Afghanistan, General Kenneth F McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command, said that “every single US service member is out of Afghanistan, I can say that with absolute certainty".
Are There Any Americans Left Behind?
The massive Kabul airlift in the days leading up to complete US withdrawal saw scores of thousands of people flown out of the country. The US alone facilitated the exit of more than 122,000 people since the end of July, including 5,400 American citizens, reports said. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there are “under 200, likely closer to 100" Americans left in Afghanistan. Gen. McKenzie, too, noted that the US “did not get out everybody we wanted to get out".
Amid the Taliban being said to have taken control of a huge cache of American weapons and military gear, it was also reported that the last US troops to depart “demilitarised" the military equipment that couldn’t be airlifted back.
What Has Been The Count Of Casualties?
A Brown University tracker said that close to 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan had claimed the lives of about 2,300 US soldiers along with that of more than 3,900 US defence contractors. The Afghan national defence forces, which the US had helped raise, train and fund, lost more than 73,000 personnel. Add to that the tens of thousands of fighters from Taliban and other groups who, too, lost their lives during the US occupation.
“Hundreds of thousands more US and allied service members have been wounded in combat or have died indirectly as a result of injuries sustained in the war zones," Brown University said, while noting another grave source of deaths.
“The US military suicide rate, historically low, has climbed significantly since 2004: four times as many service members have died by suicide than in combat in the post-9/11 wars, signaling a widespread mental health crisis," it noted.
The fighting also took a heavy toll in civilian lives with Brown University saying that from 2001 till April this year, “more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians are estimated to have died as a direct result of the war".
Suicide attacks, drone strikes and a countryside teeming with landmines all contributed to the civilian casualties.
What’s The Way Forward Now For The US?
Announcing the withdrawal of the last US troops, Blinken said that a “new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy". However, ironically, the US does not have a diplomatic presence left now in Afghanistan, with the Afghan diplomatic staff to operate out of Qatar’s capital Doha.
The US had said that following the troop pullout, its role in Afghanistan would be limited to providing “over-the-horizon" support for the Afghan national forces. But with the democratically elected government collapsing following the escape of President Ashraf Ghani and the fall of Kabul and the Afghan defence forces now defunct, it is not clear whether there would be any US military involvement of any kind in Afghanistan. The anti-Taliban resistance led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, had sought help from the US and the international community to take on Taliban, but experts say that with one long engagement coming to an end, the US may not be looking to again get involved in the country’s internal affairs.