Nearly 20 years have passed since Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda executed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, and President George W. Bush announced that the United States would invade Afghanistan as the first act in a global war against terrorism. Now, the United States is contending with how to define its relationship with the same Islamist rulers it toppled in 2001 — again a question of vengeance or acceptance — and how to try to head off the resurgence of any international terrorist threat rising from Afghanistan.
Now, there are smaller prospects of airstrikes in the Afghan countryside that leave the unnamed and faceless dead as data points in a colored bar graph of a barely read United Nations report. No roadside bombs buried in haste, in the dead of night, that might strike a government vehicle or a minibus packed with families.
Instead, there is a widespread anxiety about what the true shape of Taliban rule will be with the Americans truly gone. And there is fear that the chaotic rush of the government’s collapse during the Taliban advance could leave an unfixable economy, ruin and hunger.
The United States’ conflict in Afghanistan was a long war with a quick end, or so it seemed. But the withdrawal’s fate was set more than 18 months ago, when the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from the country by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking Americans, end mass-casualty attacks on Afghans in cities, and prevent Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from finding refuge in the country.
The Taliban’s leverage, earned after years of fighting the world’s most advanced military, multiplied as they captured more remote outposts and checkpoints, then rural villages and districts, then the roads in between them. By the beginning of this year, the Taliban had positioned themselves near several key cities, as the newly inaugurated Biden administration weighed whether to honor the agreement made under President Donald J. Trump to depart.
By the time President Biden and NATO announced in April the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces by Sept. 11, the Taliban were already taking district after district. The Afghan security forces were surrendering or being cut down in droves. Soon, provincial capitals too were under siege, despite American air power and an Afghan military that Mr. Biden and other senior officials said was nearly 300,000 strong. But in the final days, the Afghan security forces totaled around just one-sixth of that, according to U.S. officials.