WASHINGTON (AP) – As the last US combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, the question arises: when is the war really over?
For Afghans, the answer is clear but grim: it is very soon. An emboldened Taliban insurgency is making gains on the battlefield and potential peace talks have stalled. Some fear that once foreign forces leave, Afghanistan will sink deeper into civil war. Although degraded, an Afghan affiliate of the extremist Islamic State network is also in hiding.
For the United States and its coalition partners, the end of the game is murky. Although all combat troops and 20 years of accumulated war material will soon be gone, the head of the US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, will have authority until September to defend the Afghan forces against the Taliban. It can do so by ordering strikes with US warplanes based outside Afghanistan, according to defense officials who discussed the details of the military planning on condition of anonymity.
US officials said on Friday that the US military left Bagram Airfield after nearly 20 years. The facility was the epicenter of the war, but its transfer to the Afghan government did not mark the final withdrawal of the US military from the country. Two officials say the airfield has been handed over in its entirety. They spoke on condition of not being identified as they were not authorized to disclose the surrender to the media.
A look at the end of the war:
WHAT REMAINS OF THE COMBAT MISSION?
Technically, US forces have not participated in ground fighting in Afghanistan since 2014. But counterterrorism troops have been pursuing and hitting extremists ever since, including with planes based in Afghanistan. These strike aircraft have now disappeared and these strikes, as well as any logistical support to the Afghan forces, will be carried out from outside the country.
Inside Afghanistan, American troops will no longer be there to train or advise Afghan forces. An unusually large US security contingent of 650 troops, based within the US Embassy compound, will protect US diplomats and potentially help secure Kabul International Airport. Turkey is expected to continue its current mission of ensuring airport security, but McKenzie will have the power to keep up to 300 additional troops to assist this mission until September.
It is also possible that the US military will be asked to assist with any large-scale evacuation of Afghans in search of special immigrant visas, although the State Department-led effort does not require an airlift. military. The White House is concerned that the Afghans who aided the US war effort, and therefore are vulnerable to Taliban retaliation, are not being left behind.
When he decided in April to end the American war, President Joe Biden gave the Pentagon until September 11 to complete the withdrawal. The army general in charge in Kabul, Scott Miller, has already practically finished it, with almost all the military equipment missing and few troops remaining.
Miller remained in the country on Friday but is expected to leave in the next few days. But will his departure be the end of the American war? With as many as 950 US troops in the country through September and the possibility of continuing airstrikes, the answer is unlikely to be.
HOW TO END WARS
Unlike Afghanistan, some wars end with a bang. World War I was over with the armistice signed with Germany on November 11, 1918 – a day now celebrated as a federal holiday in the United States – and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
World War II saw a double celebration in 1945 with the surrender of Germany marking victory in Europe (VE Day) and the surrender of Japan a few months later as Victory Over Japan (VJ Day) following the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Korea, an armistice signed in July 1953 ended the fighting, although technically the war was only suspended because no peace treaty was ever signed.
Other endings were less clear. The United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973, in what many see as a failed war that ended with the fall of Saigon two years later. And when convoys of American troops left Iraq in 2011, a ceremony marked their final departure. But just three years later, US troops were back to rebuild the Iraqi forces that collapsed under attack from Islamic State militants.
VICTORY OR LOSS?
As the US war in Afghanistan draws to a close, there will be no surrender or peace treaty, final victory or decisive defeat. Biden says it was enough for US forces to dismantle al-Qaida and kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of the group seen as the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Lately, violence in Afghanistan has intensified. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians escalated and the group took control of more than 100 district centers. Pentagon leaders have said there is a “medium” risk that the Afghan government and its security forces will collapse within the next two years, if not sooner.
US leaders insist that the only way to peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated settlement. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that called for the United States to withdraw its troops by May 2021 in exchange for promises from the Taliban, including preventing Afghanistan from being once again a arena for attacks on America.
U.S. officials say the Taliban is not fully respecting its end of the bargain, even as the U.S. continues to pull out.
NATO’s Resolute Support mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces began in 2015, when the US-led combat mission was declared complete. At that time, the Afghans took full responsibility for their security, but they remained dependent on billions of dollars a year in American aid.
At the height of the war, there were more than 130,000 troops in Afghanistan from 50 NATO and Partner countries. That decreased to around 10,000 troops from 36 countries for the Resolute Support mission, and as of this week, most had withdrawn their troops.
Some may see the end of the war when NATO’s mission is declared over. But that may not happen for months.
Officials say Turkey is negotiating a new bilateral deal with Afghan leaders to stay at the airport to ensure security. Until this agreement is reached, legal authorities for Turkish troops staying in Afghanistan are under the auspices of the Resolute Support mission.
The withdrawal of American troops does not mean the end of the war on terrorism. The United States has made it clear that it retains the power to carry out strikes against al-Qaida or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan if they threaten the homeland of the United States.
Because the United States has withdrawn its fighter and surveillance planes from the country, it must now rely on manned and unmanned flights from ships at sea and from air bases in the Gulf region, such as Air Force Base ‘al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon is looking for basic alternatives for surveillance planes and other assets in countries closer to Afghanistan. So far, no agreement has been reached.
Associated Press editor Kathy Gannon contributed to this report.