By GABRIEL MATTESON
On April 13, the Biden administration announced that it has decided to push back the May 1 deadline to remove 2,500 troops from Afghanistan to September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and bring an end to the decades old US war in Afghanistan.
This decision doesn’t come as a surprise as, when asked about Afghanistan in a April 6 press briefing, Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated “…the President… has conveyed that it would be difficult operationally to meet the timeline.”
The only problem is that there are more than 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. It remains unclear if the returning troops include the approximately 1,000 unacknowledged US special operations forces. This raises the question, is the war in Afghanistan truly going to end? Or will it be a “symbolic end,” while the CIA and Pentagon continue the war in the shadows, with even less oversight and public scrutiny?
It is possible that Biden will also withdraw all US special operations forces, but due to his policy views articulated during his Presidential campaign and time under Obama, we will most likely see the US retaining special forces operations and covert actions defined in the terms of “counterterrorism operations.”
A senior administration official further supports this assessment as they stated, in a press briefing on April 13, that “…in coordination with our Afghan partners and with other allies, we will reposition our counterterrorism capabilities, retaining significant assets in the region to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat…”
Counterterrorism operations are largely unnecessary as, while the Taliban does retain a relationship with al-Qaeda, there are indicators that it’ll work to “regulate the behavior with foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda,” into the future. This is consistent with past behavior as the Taliban opened negotiations with the US in the 1990s to turn over US-labeled terrorists within its borders.
Perhaps even more importantly, counterterrorism operations have been linked to war crimes committed by the US & Afghan forces under its direction, currently being investigated by the International Criminal Court.
Even after the ICC began investigating charges of war crimes, the US did not cease its strategy of terror. This is best exemplified in the central Afghan province of Wardak where, beginning in December 2018 and continuing on for at least a year, residents reported “…a string of massacres, executions, mutilation, forced disappearances, attacks on medical facilities, and airstrikes targeting structures known to house civilians.”
For the majority of cases the victims were men and boys as young as 8 who were summarily executed. Few to none appeared to have any kind of formal connections to the Taliban.
These attacks are believed to be led primarily by Afghan operatives belonging to CIA-trained paramilitary units, which were supported by US special operations forces and air power. Targets were chosen by the units’ CIA advisers who accompany Afghan paramilitaries on the ground during raids.
According to Human Rights Watch, deliberate attacks on civilians such as those in Wardak are illustrative of “…a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations [war crimes] that extends to all provinces in Afghanistan where these paramilitary forces operate with impunity.”
These paramilitary units are said to be under the jurisdiction of the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan, but when findings about raids were shared with Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, he responded that, “Quite frankly, I’m not fully aware … of how they work,” and stated “We’ve asked for clarification on how these operations happen, who are involved, what are the structures of this. When they were set up, why are they not in Afghan control?”
The unaccountability of these paramilitary units is emblematic of a larger issue: the Afghan government in Kabul is largely a proxy for the US’ interests and goals in the region and relies on the millions of dollars it provides in aid.
The US continues to provide support despite corruption on an institutional level that has undermined key public institutions, electoral corruption which has led to fraudulent elections, and financial corruption which has led to billions in aid being lost. All of which has largely been ignored or tolerated by the US.
Most importantly, despite a transition of security responsibilities to the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in 2013, the Afghan government and the ANDSF rely heavily on the US for the fundamental building and functioning of its security forces.
US commitment to ensure the existence of the Afghan government is further complicated because despite the military, financial, and economic support from the US the Taliban remains a potent fighting force and is at its strongest point since the US first invaded Afghanistan.
All of this means that the US will have to retain a heavy presence in the region which it is fully willing to do. The Biden administration stated in a press briefing on April 13 that “The United States is going to remain deeply engaged with the government of Afghanistan.”
Following that overview, I feel comfortable asking “so what’s changing?” Then answering, in function, not much. The US will continue propping up the Afghan government while engaging in covert special forces operations and actions that fall under the label of counter terrorism operations. The same label which the targeted assassinations of civilians in Wadark fell under.
The war in Afghanistan is not coming to an end and the US will not be leaving in a substantial way anytime soon. The ongoing conflict will simply move to the periphery of the American consciousness while staying in the forefront of the people in Afghanistan who are directly affected by American foerign policy decisions. And at the end of the day, after September 11, we will have the option to forget what has happened over the past twenty years and what will continue to occur. Afghanistan isn’t so lucky.