Each president since 2001 has confronted an evolving mission in Afghanistan, one that resulted in tens of thousands American and Afghan casualties, frustratingly futile attempts to improve the country’s political leadership and a Taliban that stubbornly refused defeat.
Biden has explained his decision to withdraw all US troops as a necessary choice for a war whose purpose had become blurred, adding that it was set in motion by a deal with the Taliban made by President Donald Trump. The chaos that ensued in evacuating Americans and Afghans who assisted the war effort was a predictable and mostly unavoidable outcome, he said last week.
Still, the scenes of rushed departures from Kabul and the Taliban’s takeover of the country have proved deeply humbling for a global superpower that spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in its efforts.
How America spent 20 years in Afghanistan, only to have the Taliban resume control again as its troops withdrew, will be a topic for historians to ponder for decades. And who ultimately bears responsibility is a complicated debate.
George W. Bush
Still, even Bush couldn’t have predicted just how lengthy the war would become.
That number steadily increased over the coming months as US and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government and went after bin Laden, who was hiding in the Tora Bora cave complex southeast of Kabul. Bin Laden eventually slipped across the border into Pakistan.
The coming months and years would see Bush send thousands more US troops to Afghanistan to go after Taliban insurgents. By May 2003, the Pentagon said major combat in Afghanistan was over. Focus for the US and its international partners turned toward reconstructing the country and installing a western-style democratic political system.
Many of the strictures of the Taliban did fall away, and thousands of girls and women were allowed to attend school and take jobs. But Afghanistan’s government, still rife with corruption, frustrated American officials. And the Taliban began a resurgence.
At the same time, focus was shifting in Washington toward another war, this time in Iraq, which sapped military resources and attention away from Afghanistan. By the time Bush was reelected in 2004, troop levels in Afghanistan had reached around 20,000, even as oversight and attention were directed more squarely on what was transpiring in Iraq.
The following years would see steady increases in American forces deployed to Afghanistan as the Taliban regained ground in rural areas of the south. When Bush left office in 2009, there were more than 30,000 US troops stationed there — and the Taliban was staging a full-blown insurgency.
Obama announced the end of major combat operations on December 31, 2014, with the US shifting to a mission of training and assisting Afghan security forces. Further troop declines put the US on track for a full withdrawal by the time Obama left office.
Meanwhile, the Taliban continued carrying out a series of terror attacks, including in Kabul, which killed scores of civilians. Even after Trump invited and then canceled peace talks with the group to be held at Camp David in 2019, the discussions continued with Khalilzad.
A deal was struck in February 2020 that set the course for a full American withdrawal in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban it would reduce violence and cut ties to terror groups. But there weren’t any measures to enforce those promises, which the Pentagon said went unfulfilled.
Even before entering office in January, Biden had begun weighing what to do in Afghanistan, where he’d long become disillusioned about the war efforts. After having his advice to remove US troops rejected by Obama, Biden was finally in a position to end what he’d come to view as a war without purpose.
Over the course of the early months of his presidency, Biden received advice from his national security team, including “clear-eyed” warnings that withdrawing all US troops could lead to the eventual collapse of Afghanistan’s government and a takeover by the Taliban.
Conversely, remaining in the country past the May deadline set in Trump’s deal with the Taliban would expose US troops to attacks.