LONDON - U.S. allies have announced they will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan following Washington's confirmation that it intends to withdraw all its armed forces by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which triggered the U.S.-led invasion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kabul Thursday for talks with the Afghan government following the announcement. "We've achieved the objective we set out nearly 20 years ago. We never intended to have a permanent military presence here," Blinken told reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
"The threat from al-Qaida in Afghanistan is significantly degraded. Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. After years of saying that we would leave militarily at some point, that time has come. But even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue," Blinken said.
Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, center right, walks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the Sapidar Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 15, 2021.
Britain, which has 750 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission to train Afghan forces, confirmed it would begin withdrawing from the country next month.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement Thursday, "The people of Afghanistan deserve a peaceful and stable future. As we draw down, the security of our people currently serving in Afghanistan remains our priority and we have been clear that attacks on Allied troops will be met with a forceful response. The British public and our Armed Forces community, both serving and veterans, will have lasting memories of our time in Afghanistan. Most importantly we must remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, who will never be forgotten."
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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also confirmed the alliance drawdown after talks with Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, alongside NATO foreign ministers in Brussels Wednesday. "Our drawdown will be orderly, coordinated and deliberate. We plan to complete the drawdown for all our troops within a few months," Stoltenberg said.
"This is not the end of our relationship with Afghanistan but rather the start of a new chapter. NATO allies and partners will continue to stand with the Afghan people but it's now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace," Stoltenberg added at a press conference after the meeting.
Around 7,000 non-U.S. foreign forces are in Afghanistan, from mainly NATO countries as well as Australia, New Zealand and Georgia. They rely on American support and leadership for their training mission, says Julie Norman, a Middle East security analyst at University College London.
"It was a coordinated effort going in and the idea was that would be a coordinated effort going out. And part of that also was just logistical. The U.S. presence there really enabled a lot of the logistical support that enabled NATO troops to be there. So, without that U.S. presence, it would make it really difficult for our troops or for British (or NATO) troops to be staying there," Norman told VOA.
While Afghan government forces control most cities, the Taliban control much of rural Afghanistan, said Norman. "It's not unlikely that they would take control of some of those cities and potentially even Kabul. That would potentially roll back a lot of the gains for civil society, for women in particular, and would certainly weaken the Afghan government and could potentially enable Afghanistan to once again become a haven for terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS."
Former British joint forces commander General Sir Richard Barrons told Sky News Thursday that he fears for the future of the country.
"I think many people will argue that the Taliban will effectively have a summer holiday and then assume they can come back in the autumn when the Americans have left and much of NATO has drawn down and then continue their armed disputes with the Afghan government and expect to prevail and that is a proposition that they've been testing hard for many years now," he said.
"There's an opposite view, which is if the U.S. military leaves, but international politics, including the U.S. - and U.S. money - binds in behind the peace process, the departure of international military forces might mean that the peace process actually accelerates because it will no longer be affected by the presence of foreign forces. It also raises big questions as to whether the international diplomatic community will stay in Kabul without the U.S. military presence," Barrons added.
More than 450 British troops were killed in the Afghan conflict. In total, more than 3,500 NATO service personnel, including U.S. troops, have lost their lives.
"There's the sense from some that almost questioning was the sacrifice worth it if there was just going to be the withdrawal at the end," said analyst Norman. "Others however feel, is it right to keep British, American and other NATO force service members in this kind of harm's way for a war that does not seem winnable in the conventional sense?"
Among Afghans, the withdrawal of foreign troops provokes mixed feelings. "What we saw during the Taliban, it doesn't even exist in my memory anymore. I don't want to think about it because our country is moving toward development, it is moving toward peace," said Mohammad Karim, a kite maker from Kabul.
Fellow Kabul resident Sayed Ahad Azizi also hopes for more stability. "Peace is the only thing that all people want but if foreign troops stay here, the realization of peace in Afghanistan will be impossible," he said.
The Afghan withdrawal is a watershed moment for Afghanistan - and for the West, said Norman. "The initial mission was simply to rout out al-Qaida which have had a haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban. And that mission kind of changed and grew over time to be one of deposing the Taliban, trying to help Afghanistan transition to a more equal democracy et cetera. And I think Western powers, and the U.S. in particular, is seeing the limits of that kind of engagement."
The U.S. and its allies will reflect on what has been achieved in two decades of conflict. For Afghanistan, the fight for democracy and freedom is far from over.