This remote warfare round-up will deal solely with Afghanistan and U.S President Biden’s announcement that U.S forces will pull out of the country, twenty years since their invasion in 2001.
Why has President Biden Decided to Pull out of Afghanistan now?
U.S President Joe Biden announced on April 14th the withdrawal of all U.S troops stationed in Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The U.S invaded Afghanistan twenty years ago, making this the longest U.S war fought on foreign soil. In his announcement, President Biden conceded “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking.”
He further stated, “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.”
Murtaza Hussain from the Intercept argues that in many ways Biden is correct – the U.S permanent presence in Afghanistan has not yielded positive results. Additionally, the decision to prolong U.S involvement the war in Afghanistan has contributed significantly to civilian harm in the region, while also wasting U.S resources and leading to U.S casualties in the process.
Speaking at length on the U.S engagement in Afghanistan’s civil war, President Biden argued
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”The Wall Street Journal
The announcement means that the remaining 2,500 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan will withdraw by the 20th anniversary of the 11th of September attacks. Once the U.S had announced their withdrawal of troops, NATO announced that they would coordinate the withdrawal of their 7,000 troops alongside the U.S. Additionally, Australia issued a statement declaring they will pull out their remaining eighty troops stationed there, coordinating with the U.S withdrawal.
What is the current situation in Afghanistan?
In February 2020, former U.S President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban that U.S troops would exit Afghanistan by May 1st 2021. As part of the agreement, the Taliban agreed to cut their ties with terrorist group Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. Additionally, they agreed to reduce violence and engage in talks with the current Afghan government, who are supported by the U.S. It’s important to note that the Afghan government were excluded from this deal. The Biden administrations Sept. 11th deadline for withdrawal violates the previous deal.
Currently, the Afghan government controls bigger towns and cities, however, the Taliban has expanded their territory, essentially encircling them. For the past year, the Taliban have stopped attacking international forces after signing an agreement with the U.S, but have continued to attack Afghan forces. According to Kermani and Zubaide of the BBC, the Taliban don’t view themselves as a rebel group but instead “a government in waiting”.
Have the U.S succeeded in their goals? Who won this war?
It is safe to say there are no winners in the conflict in Afghanistan, the U.S will exit without achieving victory. The Taliban are viewing this as their victory stating “we have won the war and America has lost”. However, it is more important to examine who really lost in this prolonged conflict: civilians.
According to the Costs of War project run by Brown University – Afghanistan has lost roughly 157,000 people to the conflict – which includes an estimate of over 43,000 civilians, and those wounded or displaced is estimated to be in the millions.
The project also states the U.S have spent $2.261 trillion to date on their military operations in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the U.S forces have suffered more than 2,300 deaths and with 20,660 soldiers injured in action since 2001.
Greg Jaffe writes in the Washington Post – the U.S long war in Afghanistan illuminates the limits of the U.S Military capabilities.
In the same article, Carter Malakasian, a top advisor to senior military officers in Afghanistan, argues the main lesson learned from the past two decades of U.S involvement in Afghanistan is that changing culture, countering corruption, and building sustainable institutions takes a long time.
President Biden reiterated that the reasons for military engagement in Afghanistan remain the same, Afghanistan must never again be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the U.S. The terrorist network Al-Qaeda have been significantly reduced in capabilities within Afghanistan for some time.
The end of a war or the birth of a remote one?
The Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin announced in Brussels that the Pentagon was planning to reposition U.S forces in the region, however, he declined to comment further on these plans. According to the New York Times, U.S officials are exploring basing rights and other agreements with nearby countries such as Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The article discusses the Pentagon’s plan to deploy a less visible force, which will remain active in the region remotely to prevent the resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan. This less visible force will rely more heavily on remote technology for surveillance and airstrikes, while deploying elite special forces for specific missions in the region. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, coupled with the relocation of bases to neighboring countries align with the increasingly prevalent shift to liquid warfare, which have been described by IRW founders Dr. Prof. Jolle Demmers and Dr. Lauren Gould in their article “An Assemblage approach to liquid warfare: AFRICOM and the ‘hunt’ for Joseph Kony“.
In this article Demmers and Gould describe liquid warfare as “A form of military interventionism that shuns direct control of territory and populations and its cumbersome order-building and order-maintaining responsibilities, focusing instead on ‘shaping’ the international security environment through remote technology, flexible operations and military-to-military partnerships” (Demmers and Gould, 2018).
The change in U.S military tactics has been visible in Afghanistan for some time. Since 2012, the U.S forces have replaced large scale deployment of troops with more light-footprint missions, attempting to support Afghan forces as they lead the fight against the Taliban, with the training of hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces and supporting airstrikes. The relocation of U.S forces outside of Afghanistan can be seen as a part of this bigger transition which had already begun with an increased reliance on remote warfare tactics.
Another aspect of the turn to remote military operations, is the domestic audience of western countries. In their chapter “The Remote Warfare Paradox: Democracies, Risk Aversion and Military Engagement,” Demmers and Gould argue that the public are less engaged in the violent realities of war, and less likely to ensure accountability and transparency for their military’s actions abroad, if less of their troops are on the ground in war-zones. For these domestic audiences, the devastating violence of wars waged in their name, is made visible through the return of troops in ‘body-bags’ (Demmers and Gould, 2020). Demmers and Gould argue one of the reasons for the turn to remote warfare is democratic risk-aversion: through the waging of war from a distance, those in power have engaged in a strategy of risk-management, transferring risk from their own soldiers, to combatants and civilians on the ground. Therefore, the devastation caused by their actions often goes unnoticed by their domestic public.
The political implications of the turn to remote warfare tactics is evident in the statement by Carter Malakasian about the war in Afghanistan. Malakasian, who was quoted earlier, told the Washington Post that commanders should take a different approach to fighting wars in the future, substituting large numbers of troops on the ground for smaller, less visible presences that are more likely to be politically palatable over the long term.