US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan… to refocus efforts elsewhere

US soldier in Afghanistan

On 14 April, US president Joe Biden pledged to pull the country’s remaining troops out of its war in Afghanistan by a strict deadline of 11 September this year. But he added that this was in part to allow the US to focus its energy elsewhere, namely China.

Decades of destruction and suffering in Afghanistan

During the Cold War, the US turned its focus on Afghanistan to try and weaken the USSR. The 1980s saw the CIA help to coordinate the efforts of religious fundamentalists in their fight against secular forces in the country. Saudi Arabian citizen Osama bin Laden, whom people would later come to know for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, was one of many extremists who benefited from the boosting of ultra-conservative forces in Afghanistan during this period. Saudi Arabia, as a key US ally, helped to fund this campaign with billions of petrodollars.

This war killed well over a million people, and forced millions more to flee as refugees. And the extremist Taliban group emerged as the dominant political force as a result. The conflict had a particularly negative effect on women’s rights.

After 11 September 2001, the US launched its war on Afghanistan to stop the Taliban harbouring Osama bin Laden. Thanks to vague and shifting aims, along with intense lobbying, troops have stayed ever since. According to a report from Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission in 2019, the resulting conflict killed over 75,000 Afghan civilians. Hundreds of these deaths have come from airstrikes in recent years. The war also displaced millions more people. And it potentially cost the US over $2tn.

Two different promises

Previous US presidents promised and failed to end the war on Afghanistan. And Biden is already facing resistance from establishment forces supportive of endless wars abroad. But even if he does fulfil his promise, there’s another ominous pledge he made in his announcement. In particular, he said the US now had to “focus on the challenges that are in front of us”, stressing:

We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China.

This comes in a context of increasingly hostile US rhetoric and actions against China. Indeed, when Biden requested a record ‘defence’ budget of $753bn on 9 April, a White House fact sheet said it was prioritising “the need to counter the threat from China as the department’s top challenge”.

Main article image via The U.S. Army/CC BY 2.0